Racial prejudice thwarted Anna May Wong’s career in Hollywood, but if critics have their way, people will remember her in the same way they do, say, Luise Rainer, who won an Oscar for playing an Asian woman in The Good Earth, a role Wong desperately wanted. (Today, the actress is mainly remembered for her supporting role in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express alongside Marlene Dietrich.) After the success of Variety and Moulin Rouge!, E.A. Dupont left for London to make Piccadilly, a scintillating melodrama starring Wong, Gild Gray, Jameson Thomas, and featuring a power cameo by Charles Laughton (an unknown Ray Milland also appears as an extra). Restored and released last year in anticipation of the centennial of Wong’s birth, Piccadilly begins with an opening title sequence inventive for its time, and though Dupont manages an expressionistic angle or two during some early scenes, the film remains a slave to its plot: In Jazz Age Britain, Shosho (Wong) sells her soul to a nightclub owner, Valentine (Jemeson Thomas); she becomes a star but angers both her lover (King Ho Chang) and her benefactor’s wife (Gray), both of whom take their jealousies out on the woman. But what the film lacks in razzle-dazzle it more than makes up for with Wong’s performance. Maybe that’s why Dupont’s direction is uncredited: because Wong truly feels as if she is the author of this work. Valentine offers Shosho a job shortly after he catches her seductively dancing in the scullery of his nightclub. It’s a brilliant sequence: After a patron (Laughton) complains about a dirty plate, a series of men under Valentine’s watch shift the blame onto others (“The kitchen is the kitchen and the scullery is the scullery,” one says), who lead Valentine to Shosho as if he were following a trail of breadcrumbs. It’s difficult to imagine a Hollywood production allowing an Asian star to be as commanding as Wong is in Piccadilly, which is race-conscious without ever being racist. If this isn’t Wong’s best performance (see The Toll of the Sea for that) it’s because the actress doesn’t so much act here as she contrives a political resistance: Shosho is scarcely complex, though you wouldn’t know it from Wong’s gaze, which evokes a woman in complete control of her own destiny. Because Wong never had this power in real life, it makes the performance all the more devastating.
Piccadilly was one of the last silent films so I can't imagine the print having been in terrible condition, but regardless of how much restoration actually took place, the work on display here is truly mesmerizing. Every nuance in the film's aesthetic, from the expressionistic lighting to the inventive use of soft focus, is evoked with great sophistication. Stage Door, made eight years later and just released on DVD by Warner Home Video, doesn't look remotely as good.
A five-minute sound prologue to the film, an excellent 20-minute commentary by Neil Brand about his score, stills galleries, some DVD-ROM features, and a video excerpt from San Francisco's International Asian American Film Festival, moderated by B. Ruby Rich and featuring actress Jacqueline Kim (whose comments about Wong's acting being politically aestheticized is spot-on) and author Karen Leong, among others.
What's up with the titties on the DVD's front cover?