Anna May Wong, a fine actress who wound up playing Su Lin, Lin Ying, Lan Ying, Kim Ling, A-hsing...
Feb 24, 2011
There are three reasons to watch Piccadilly, a 1929 British silent backstage melodrama. The performance of Anna May Wong is primary. She's a knockout as Shosho, a Chinese dishwasher in a posh London nightclub who gets a chance to show how she can dance, and then becomes a star. Wong is so charismatic, so fine a performer and so confident an actress, that you might wonder whatever happened to her. But there's more to Piccadilly than Wong. Perhaps not too much, but enough to enjoy the passing parade of dated movie choreography and the moody atmosphere of transplanted German expressionism. The downside is the story...one of those behind-the-scenes melodramas of entertainers and impresarios, stilted and dated, filled with tremulous glances, suspicious glares, clutched hankies and faces turned away.
Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas) owns the Piccadilly Club, the poshest of the posh, where the sophisticates of London crème de la crème, dressed to the nines, come to dance and dine, and to watch Mabel & Vic, "London's Greatest Dance Attraction." Wilmot is a tough, smooth, perfectionist. He made the Piccadilly what it is. He discovered Mabel Greenfield (Gilda Gray) and made stars out of her and her dance partner, Vic Smiles (Cyril Ritchard). While he appreciates Mabel's talents, his nightclub comes first. Mabel really loves the guy and Vic really loves Mabel. ("My dear, I'm simply mad about you!") One night a diner is given a dirty plate. He makes a scene; Wilmot is furious and storms into the kitchen and scullery. There he sees Shosho, dancing on a table for the other workers when she should have been washing dishes. He fires her. Then he has second thoughts. Shosho has something that the impresario in Wilmot tells him might make a star attraction...exotic, sensuous, unusual. It's not long before Shosho is a smash. By this time Vic has left, Shosho finds it no trouble at all to delightfully snare Wilmot (in probably the best scene in the movie) and Mabel is jealous. Into this hot stew of fervid emotions, a shot rings out, scandal ensues, a trial is held...justice, both criminal and moral, is served up. And in that great tradition of melodramatic showbiz...life goes on with a million more stories undoubtedly waiting to be told. The storyline is a slog.
Still, the big dance number with Mabel & Vic at the start of the movie is a delight of dated style. Mabel and Vic each come prancing down the two grand staircases that bracket the Piccadilly's elegant dance floor, he in tails, she in a swirling gown, and off they go. It's one of those tricky, ricky-ticky fast numbers where elbows and feet fly about, complete with winking glances of mischievous fun. It goes on and on, with Vic and Mabel each having a chance to shine. Mabel flirts and shows her legs. Vic with slicked back hair seductively grins with the silent nasal charm of Jack Buchanan or Noël Coward. It's the kind of well-meaning, "classy" dance that Fred Astaire drove a stake through four years later in Flying Down to Rio. However, watch this number with affection. It does no harm and at one time held the paying movie customers in thrall.
The look of the film is all moody atmosphere. This isn't enough to salvage the movie by itself, but it gives Piccadilly a lot of visual class.
And then there's Anna May Wong, an actress of talent, style and screen presence. She's featured in the billing but she dominates the movie. She comes straight through the camera to us, sexy and innocent, calculating and surprised, whose dancing captures us and whose acting tells us here is a woman to pay attention to. As an actress of Chinese descent, she hadn't a chance in Hollywood except as a stereotype. In the Twenties she finally left for Europe and had a few star roles in Germany and England, but then returned to Hollywood with a contract that seemed to assure her of star Hollywood roles. The contract didn't say major star roles with star male leads. She lost the leads in The Good Earth and Dragon Seed because producers said she looked too Chinese. She had to watch as Luise Rainer and Katherine Hepburn starred, both gussied up in some of the oddest "Chinese" eyelids and makeup Hollywood ever devised. Anna May Wong wound up playing characters with names like Su Lin, Lin Ying, Lan Ying and, in an explosion of Hollywood creativity, Lan Ying Lin. (I'm not kidding: Impact, Bombs Over Burma, Dangerous to Know and Daughter of Shanghai.) Then there was Ling Moy, Kim Ling, A-hsing, Lois Ling and, of course, Chinese Woman. (Daughter of the Dragon, Island of Lost Men, The Barbara Stanwyck Show, Ellery Queen's Penthouse Mystery and Producers' Showcase)
So put Piccadilly in the DVD player, probably with your finger on the fast-forward button, to watch Mabel & Vic in their big number and, most of all, to watch a woman who could have been a great star if it hadn't been for Hollywood.