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October 17, 2023


Anna May Wong - Piccadilly (1929) Cafe de Paris 2.jpeg

E.A. Dupont - 1929
Milestone Film & Video BD Region A

I had seen Piccadilly once before, as a British DVD, roughly twenty years ago. The first thing that struck me, that I had totally forgotten, was that actress Gilda Gray had top billing, her name larger than anybody else in the cast. Gray was originally known as a dancer, credited with inventing "The Shimmy", and had starred in about half a dozen films prior to Piccaadilly. The evaporation of her screen career coincided with the transition to talking pictures. By what appears to be a cruel coincidence, Piccadilly has also been the artistic peak for director E.A. Dupont, and the actress more notably remembered with the film, Anna May Wong.

Gray and Cyril Ritchard play a dance team that is the featured entertainment at the oversized Piccadilly nightclub, run by Jameson Thomas. Ritchard is in love with Gray who is in love with Thomas. After firing Wong for distracting the other scullery workers with her own dancing, Thomas re-hires her to be a novelty performer. Wong is to perform a Chinese dance in an authentic costume. The dance and the costume are both as authentic as chop suey. All eyes are on Anna May Wong with her large helmet, exposed midriff and bare legs. Between that costume and a dance that is mostly arm waving, Wong does not have to do much to make Gilda Gray yesterday's news. While Thomas falls in love with Wong, who knows just how to get what she wants, there is Jim, a Chinese man whose relationship with Wong is the subject of speculation. Two different but connected love triangles made more complicated by race and class.

Director E.A. Dupont was known at the time for his creative camerawork, especially for his 1925 film, Variety, with its unmoored camera mimicking the point of view of being on a trapeze. That film brought Dupont to Hollywood for one production, followed by working in England for a few years. Notable are several traveling shots, one of the hands of bartenders and the hands of the customers, culminating with the camera resting on the hands of Wong and Thomas taking their drinks. Also a shot taken on a bus moving past the various theaters in Piccadilly Circus. Shadows across faces are used for artistic effect. For all the stylistic flourishes, my favorite shot is a tight close-up of Gilda Gray's face as she nibbles on a cookie, satisfied that she has put would-be lover Cyril Ritchard in his place.

The blu-ray is taken from the British Film Institute restored print. Most of the film is in sepia tone with some night scenes tinted blue. While commentary tracks are usually expected to cover information on the stars, the director and other top crew members, Farran Smith Nehme shows exceptional research in her information on the virtually forgotten Gilda Gray and Jameson Thomas. There is also discussion on Arnold Bennett's standing as a novelist by his contemporary, Virginia Woolf. Of interest is that Piccadilly was Bennett's only filmed screenplay. A possible collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock in 1930 collapsed reportedly because Bennett wrote specifically for a silent film at a time when that was no longer commercially viable. Composer Neil Brand has a supplement explaining his musical choices for creating a score that in part was influenced by jazz and popular dance music of the time. The excerpts of a 2004 panel discussing Wong's life and career, featuring actress Nancy Kwan, is marred by the echoey audio. Of more interest is the sound prologue that was added after the initial release, with Jameson Thomas as a bartender of a small, rural pub about to tell about his time as the owner of a nightclub in London. Although his scene does serve a narrative purpose, the prominently billed Charles Laughton appears briefly as the most belligerent gourmand at the Piccadilly Club.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 17, 2023 07:20 AM