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By Phil Hall | February 15, 2005

The British silent cinema is widely regarded, though not respected, for being a bastion of cheaply-made dull movies. Except for some of Alfred Hitchcock’s earlier efforts, no British silent movie is considered to be a classic of the era.

If any British silent production comes close to being a classic, it would’ve been “Piccadilly,” an uncommonly lavish and sophisticated 1929 offering helmed by the German director E.A. Dupont (best known for his masterwork “Variety”) and starring the Americans Gilda Gray and Anna May Wong. Had the film not been released right when silent movies were being pushed away in favor of talking pictures, “Piccadilly” may have been recalled as one of the last hurrahs of the sound-free cinema. Thanks to a beautiful restoration, “Piccadilly” has re-emerged as one of the most entertaining films of its time…and our time, for that matter.

The storyline here is fairly silly stuff: London’s Piccadilly Club is run by the oily Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas), who is in love with his star dancer Mabel (Gilda Gray). Mabel, however, is also loved by her dancing partner Victor (Cyril Ritchard), but she spurns his offer to join him across the Atlantic on the Broadway stage. Yet Mabel’s solo dancing is not successful and Valentine, upset by the club’s declining business and Mabel’s increasingly haughty behavior, gambles on the untried yet exotically beautiful Shosho (Anna May Wong), a Chinese dishwasher he had fired when he found her dancing for her kitchen colleagues during work hours. Shosho is not only a success as a cabaret dance act, but she seduces Valentine away from Mabel. The two women literally duel over Valentine, with Shosho fatally losing the struggle. But was it Mabel who killed Shosho?

While the “Piccadilly” plotline is an admittedly flimsy foundation, it serves to propel the film’s stunning production values and Dupont’s brilliant cinematic imagination. The set design, ranging from the opulent club to the seedy Limehouse neighborhood, stunningly recreates the high and low ends of London society. Dupont literally spins his camera throughout this world, with imaginative tracking shots and even a 360-degree whirl that makes the film a visually giddy experience. Glittery mirrors, subtle shadows, unexpected titled camera angles and seductive waves of cigarette smoke make “Piccadilly” a treat for the eye and the mind.

Much of the contemporary interest in the film, however, has less to do with Dupont (whose subsequent career was wrecked following his forced departure from Nazi Germany and a disastrous Hollywood sojourn) than with Anna May Wong, the beautiful Chinese-American actress who was among the first non-white movie stars. Wong’s remarkable talent brings dimension and depth to what could have been a cardboard caricature of the typical Asian femme fatale. Whether dancing in an exotic/erotic manner in a skimpy Balinese costume or happily gloating over her newspaper reviews or just plain turning on the charm/heat/sex appeal, Wong owns the film. Even though Gilda Gray (a Ziegfeld Follies star who popularized the “shimmy” dance craze in the 1920s) is top-billed, Wong is very much the film’s main focus.

“Piccadilly” also has some special bonuses: Charles Laughton makes his film debut here as a dyspeptic glutton complaining about a dirty plate, Cyril Ritchard (best known as Captain Hook to Mary Martin’s Peter Pan) has a rare film appearance and shows off his charmingly eccentric dancing abilities, and somewhere in the midst of the nightclub’s crowded audience is a young Welsh actor named Ray Milland.

“Piccadilly” is such a wonderful and unexpected treat that it is astonishing to wonder how the critics and audiences of 1929 failed to appreciate its charms. But their loss is clearly our gain, as this grand old film comes back for its long-overdue praise.

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