Thursday, August 6, 2015

Piccadilly (1929)

One of those impossibly mobile movies from the silent era, right before that free-wheeling aesthetic kicked the bucket with the coming of sound. The camera just cannot sit still; not anchored by sound equipment, it positively floats. It follows, pans and tracks after actors, particularly during three beautifully filmed dance sequences.

Anna May Wong, as Shosho, just trumps everyone in the cast by being her own glam self. She has such presence, the movie just runs out of steam whenever she's not on screen. Quite the famme fatale, her sly smirks and seductive gestures result her being more compelling than her rival Mabel (Gilda Gray).

No fault of Mabel's own, but this blonde dripping with jewelry is a diva. She goes through the old hat routine of being jealous of The OTHER Woman (Shosho), and I ended up rooting for Shosho, who at least puts the moves on the boss subtlety. It doesn't help that, in contrast to Mabel's dumping of boyfriend/boss Mr. Wilmont (James Thomas) and her too-late regret afterwards, that Shosho has a more compelling character arc, going from a British-Chinese dishwasher to the toast of the very white and very rich cliental of The Piccadilly Nightclub.

Alas, if you're familiar with old movies, it comes at no surprise that 1) you don't actually see Shosho kiss her white boss Mr. Wilmont (it cuts right before lip to lip contact), but 2) she gets bumped off. To have a woman of Asian decent sleep with a white man is one thing, but for her to live afterwards would have been too much for 1920s audiences. Still, to even suggest sexual relations between the two (as this movie does) must have been really racy for the time.

 I have to wonder how this went over in the US.  I'm guessing that the sequence in the low class dive, where a drunk white woman dances with a black man and gets both of them kicked out, must have certainly been cut. The scene is presented without comment: is it pro- or anti-segregation? This is the only time that the movie acknowledges racism openly; jealous Mabel seems more perturbed that a former scullery maid is stealing her spotlight. On the one hand, Shosho seduces her boss, whom she doesn't love (at least, that's what Mabel claims) for monetary benefits, and gets punished for it. On the other hand, Shosho isn't a villain, and we the viewers spend enough time with her, and in her squalid apartment, empathize with her and get caught up in her rise. He amicable relationship with a dumpy white scullery-maid, who encourages Shosho throughout, is quite refreshing.

Also fun:
The neat opening displays the credits on the sides of busses.
Charles Laughton shows up as a fellow who causes a ruckus over a dirty plate.
Caddish Cyril Richard, the fiend who got knifed in Blackmail (1929), shows off his neat dancing skills.

The good: cinematography, Anna May Wong

The Bad: bland white leads, cliche jealousy plot, Ms. Wong's fate

Accidentally Feminist?: Not really, but it's neat to see a successful woman of Asian decent on the silent screen.

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