The BFI’s latest restoration reaches back into the silent period for a British drama that might not be allocated much space in the history books, but shows a clean paid of heels when it comes to depicting high-living and racial dramas. Director Ewald André Dupont was working at the high-water mark of silent cinema that brought about masterworks like his fellow German’s FW Murnau’s Sunrise; Piccadilly may not quite have the same sense of transformative poetry, but it’s a neglected film that blossoms under the re-mastered treatment.
We’re invited to the demi-monde of nightclubs and exoticism circa 1929; Piccadilly is the high-faluting area where we enter a nightspot that appears to be constructed from ice-cubes, cocaine, and very energetic dancing. The club is managed by Valentine Thomas (Jameson Talbot), an old-school smoothie in thrall to the comely Mabel (Gilda Grey), who dances nightly to the delight of the copious punters. But there’s skulduggery in the scullery, where the workers aren’t working, but instead are wowed by the exotic dances of Shosho (Anna May Wong). Shosho catches the eye of Valentine Wilmot, much to Mabel’s annoyance, but in true Copacabana melodramatic style, things are resolved in blood and a single gun-shot, but just who shot who?
‘You want me to give you back what you could not keep,’ Shosho gently admonishes Mabel, but her logic fails to take into account a hobbled playing field; as an outsider, she risks being side-lined when she gets in the way of white privilege, as a more overt racial sub-plot makes explicit. “He’s too old for you,’ the women tell each other, but there’s no way of making peace, and things descend into a courtroom finale that manages to pull out a couple of surprises as well as some genuine tension. And there’s a Charles Laughton appearance that’s one for cineastes to savour; the star hams it up effectively, making the most of his role as a diner who discovers a speck of dirt on his plate due to staff distracted by Shosho’s cavortings and consequently loses the plot.
Piccadilly is warmly recommended by Martin Scorsese, who knows his silent film; it’s something of a revelation to see just how slick the film is, with camera moves, effects and all kinds of cinematic jazz appropriate to the age. There’s also an optional prologue, recorded with sound, which is absolutely awful in its bluntness; the technical requirements of sound effectively negated much of the creative grammar of the movies, and set the magic of cinema backwards in terms of visual finesse. Piccadilly can be firmly recommended to the curious; after a frantic start, things settle down to some traditional melodrama, and the final developments are every bit as gripping as you might hope. And Wong is a remarkable presence; even if the film isn’t entirely woke (hardly a serious complaint given that it’s coming up for 100 years old), she ignites the narrative with every appearance, and shows remarkable charisma in a role that begs for showboating, and gets it.
This fresh restoration comes complete with substantial extras, a docs with the hardy perennial Neil Brand discussing his Jazz-age influened score, an video essay by Bryony Dixon on the film itself and a sparky, detailed 50 minute look by critic Jasper Sharp on the career of Anna May Wong, all making an excellent package.
Thanks to the BFi for advance access, the film is on blu-ray in the UK from June 21st 2021.