Piccadilly, made in 1929 and helmed by German director E.A. Dupont, was one of the last of the British silent movies. Dupont had made several films in his homeland, one a bona fide classic (Variety, 1925), but he never successfully adapted to the sound era. By the end of his career he was in America, making Z-movie crapola like 1953’s The Neanderthal Man.
With Piccadilly, Dupont imbues a so-so script with grace and expressionist expertise. The film is an old-fashioned melodrama gussied up with a large dose of late-’20s indulgence. In London’s fictitious Piccadilly Club, star dancer Mabel (Gilda Grey) is pursued by both the club’s owner, Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas), and her dancing partner, Victor (a very young Cyril Ritchard, who later gained famed as Captain Hook opposite Mary Martin’s Peter Pan). Although Valentine is infatuated by Mabel, he’s also a practical businessman; when Mabel’s popularity begins to wane, he replaces her with Shosho (the fabulous Anna May Wong), who was working in the club’s kitchen as a dishwasher.
So, Mabel is twice spurned, as an artiste and as Valentine’s love interest. The film winds along a familiar path, with a murder, a trial and a last minute revelation. This is no lost classic, but it is entertaining. Wong was the first Asian-American female screen star and very popular in the ’20s, but now is somewhat forgotten after her career, like Dupont’s, descended into B-movie obscurity with the advent of sound. Her Shosho is a mixture of innocence and calculation, far from the standard Asian vamp, and the film doesn’t shy away from depicting the racism of the times. During one particularly effective scene, Valentine and Shosho visit a local dive where they witness a white woman being thrown out of the place because she dared to dance with a black man — at which point they decide to surreptitiously make their exit before they’re spotted by the angry crowd.
Dupont’s fluid camera work is evident, but his famous use of light and shadow is somewhat diminished by the fact that the film is tinted — yellow for indoor scenes, and blue for nighttime outdoor scenes. The music on the sound track, recently composed, is anachronistic and sometimes distracting — the ensemble often sounds like a ’50s Las Vegas show band with jazz pretensions and a hip bass player. But Piccadilly offers many small pleasures for film buffs, including the debut of Charles Laughton, and gems for neophytes, like the chance to discover Wong and Dupont.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, Sept. 20, at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.