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Piccadilly

Director: E. A. Dupont

U.K.| 1929. Black and white with tints. 108 min.


A silent classic forgotten for decades, Piccadilly has been magnificently restored by the British Film Institute in a sparkling print with tinted images and a score by Neil Brand. It’s a sumptuous showbiz melodrama that seethes with sexual and racial tension. The remarkable Chinese-American screen goddess Anna May Wong stars as Shosho, a scullery maid in a fashionable London nightclub whose exotic dance routines catch the eye of suave club owner Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas). She rises to become the toast of London and the object of his erotic obsession, much to the consternation of the bitterly jealous Mabel (Gilda Gray), his former lover and star dancer.
This delirious evocation of Jazz Age London, directed by the great German emigre E. A. Dupont, has some dazzling cinematography by Werner Brandes and atmospheric sets by Alfred Junge. The film’s impressive list of credits also includes a screenplay by Zola-inspired novelist Arnold Bennett and a cameo role for Charles Laughton in one of his first screen appearances.
Dupont, who is best known for the terrific Emil Jannings vehicle Variety (1925), had an original way of employing camera movement to suggest erotic chemistry between characters. His imaginative direction here ensures that Wong is as memorable and confident as her contemporary Louise Brooks in the films of G. W. Pabst (Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl). Wong was the first Asian-American star and one of the first non-white actresses to gain international celebrity. Best known as Marlene Dietrich’s sultry sidekick in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express, her career was stymied by racial stereotyping. Following years of neglect, she seems poised for rediscovery in her centenary year, which will see the publication of at least three new biographies and two documentary studies.

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