Piccadilly

By Gareth Buckell

One of the last British silent films, Piccadilly delves into the heart of London's entertainment industry, exposing its hypocrisies and latent social tensions. The BFI's DVD release is a lovingly made restoration of a film that, until a recent critical re-evaluation of both the movie itself and the life and career of its heroine, Anna May Wong, had been marginalized within critical circles.

Directed by a German Emigré, EA Dupont (best known for his Variété, starring Emil Jannings), and shot by Werner Brandes, Piccadilly owes as much to the social realist films made in Germany, particularly Pabst's Pandora's Box, as it does to the aesthetically conservative British films of the period. Certainly, Anna May Wong is shot in such a way as to display a similar dark eroticism as that of Louise Brooks in Pabst's masterpiece.

Wong is the most remarkable feature of the film. Her portrayal of Shosho, a Chinese scullery maid who catches the eye of nightclub owner Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas) and becomes a dancer in the Piccadilly, invoking the bitter jealousy of Wilmot's lover Mabel Greenfield (Gilda Gray), is mesmerising, exuding a barely, yet powerfully, restrained sexuality.

However, Arnold Bennett's script just fails to deliver the dramatic peaks that Wong's obvious, and shamefully neglected, talents deserve. While a number of scenes offer a fascinating insight into the racial and socio-economic tensions of jazz age London, not least the scenes in the Limehouse bar which plays host to segments of London's Chinese community, or a terse confrontation after a white girl dances with a black man, the story as a whole leans a little too far towards the melodramatic, as do some of the other performances.

It was the more traditional writers in 1920s Britain, such as Bennett and HG Wells who wrote for the cinema – modernists such as Wyndham Lewis and Virginia Woolf displayed little interest in drafting scenarios. So the more formalistic tendencies were largely a product of foreign directors working in Britain: artists such as Len Lye, Hans Richter and Dupont. Indeed, the cinematography of the German team of Dupont, Brandes and Alfred Junge is impressive. The shots are intelligently framed, with clever use of mise-en-scène to contrast Shosho's background with the glamorous world of the Piccadilly club where she becomes so successful. This is emphasised by the increasingly beautiful costumes Shosho wears, obvious signifiers of her rising fortunes.

Neil Brand's improvisatory jazz score, commissioned for a recent live run at the National Film Theatre, sets the tone effectively and is unobtrusive throughout. The disc also features a prologue for a sound version of the film and biographies of Wong and Dupont, as well as an interview with brand on composing for the feature.

Piccadilly is a decent film, technically sound and noteworthy for both its social commentary and for the performance of Anna May Wong. In many ways, it is emblematic of British silent film: generally conservative formally (although not without invention, notably with a long tracking shot along the Limehouse bar) and slightly melodramatic, and clearly influenced by contemporary British theatre and 'middlebrow' literature. It serves as an intriguing period piece, but falls short of the greatest British silents, The Lodger: a story of the London fog (Alfred Hitchcock, 1926) and Maurice Elvey's Hindle Wakes (1927); it will prove fascinating to those who love the silent screen, but those seeking an initiation to British film of the period should possibly begin elsewhere.
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