Piccadilly (1929) is a silent movie based on the glamorous world of a London revue bar and the entangled relationships behind its inner workings with spurned love, rivalry and jealousy that results in murder. This is a newly restored High Definition deluxe edition complete with an array of video extras now available on Blu Ray from the BFI online store.
The film’s story centres around the Piccadilly Club and its owner Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas). The club’s high society clientele come to drink and dine at this decadent venue whilst being entertained by its top dance act Mabel (Gilda Gray) and Victor (Cyril Ritchard). Its auspicious setting is a perfect platform for the dance couple to show off their star qualities but when the music stops we find an awkward love tryst between Victor, Mabel and Valentine, where each in turn spurns the other’s advances. It is Victor, the lead dancer, who brings the girls to the venue but Mabel rebuffs his advances, seeking instead the attention of the proprietor Valentine, who has his own more pressing concerns of the business.
The pressures of running the club are put to the test when a commotion from a dissatisfied customer in the restaurant interrupts Mabel’s dancing and Valentine has to return a dirty plate to the kitchens. There he finds a kitchen-hand Shosho (Anna May Wong) dancing on the tables for the entertainment of the kitchen staff. She is instantly dismissed and sent home, but when the business’ takings begin to suffer after Victor quits for America, Valentine hits upon the idea of introducing a new exotic dance act, Shosho, to lift the club’s failing fortunes. This of course can only further inflame the increasingly neurotic emotions of Mabel as Valentine goes out of his way to make his new exotic act a success, and becomes increasingly infatuated.
The film’s opening title sequence of the bright lights of London’s West End in black and white set the scene as the credits arrive on the side of London buses. The glitz and glamour of the club is modelled on the famous Cafe de Paris and dazzles with dance hall opulence that includes a twin staircase, balcony view, band stand and ornate flooring. Combined with a classic silent movie big band score, it is very much in keeping with the burgeoning jazz scene of the time. The charmingly dated dance sequences, although pedestrian at best, still manage to hold a sensual allure and Victor does a vintage dance routine for the camera, that is special in its own timeless way.
Written by Arnold Bennett who is known best for his work about class, poverty and race the film contrasts the glamour of the West End scene with the working class diners and homes in the surrounding areas of an already cosmopolitan London. Anna May Wong who plays Shosho brings great style and poise to her role. She is recognised as the first Chinese American actress to become a big Hollywood star and shows why she was internationally renown as a fashion icon, and in one of the last silent movies ever made, where suggestion and intimation are powerful tools, she gives a delightfully skilled performance.
Despite its sexual noirish tone there are some lighter moments of humour too like the amusing scene played by Charles Laughton as the irate diner who complains about the offending dirty dish. He looks so like Mr. Creosote from the famous Monty Python sketch he can only have been its inspiration. There is also Shosho’s chaperone Jim (King Hou Chan) who is asked to model her show costume to get Valentine to buy it, and in doing so provides a very early tribute to the Soho drag artists.
It is a nicely shot film which has easy to follow silent movie captions that for its time must have raised a few eyebrows with its racial and sexual themes, but it manages to poke fun at itself too with an old fashioned British sensibility and humour towards the superficial nonsense that is driving its characters towards murder, all encapsulated by its sympathetic jolly jazz band soundtrack.
Director: E A Dupont
Stars: Anna May Wong, Gilda Gray, Jameson Thomas, Charles Laughton
Genre: Crime / Drama
Run time: 1hr 32min
Piccadilly can be pre-ordered from the BFI Shop directly here.