Atmospheric and dark, directed by E. A. DuPont
Director E. A. DuPont’s silent films are hard to find now, except for three important films about performers: Variete, Piccadilly, and Moulin Rouge. Each is fun to watch, and each is historically important for different reasons. While DuPont may be one of the German emigre directors who we’ve mostly forgotten, his films are well worth a look. Variete, the best of the three, features the great Emil Jannings and some inventive technical maneuvers. (This film was marketed in the States as Jealousy, and in England as Vaudeville, though its most recent edition uses the German title of Variete.) Piccadilly is one of the best films of the exquisitely beautiful Anna May Wong, who is astonishing in one of her earliest roles. And Moulin Rouge — well, it’s the earliest version we have of the story.
A bit about DuPont
Before getting to Piccadilly, a little background about director DuPont. Aside from his three special films about performers, he apparently wasn’t a remarkable director and had a difficult time finding employment. In Germany where he began his career at UFA, his films are all impossible to find except in a few archives. In his later career, he was mostly relegated to B pictures. This didn’t make much sense to me, given how great these three films are, until I read that DuPont was “extremely temperamental and preferred to work after midnight,” which ran up costs and pleased no one.(1) His sound films were apparently pretty bad anyway, so his skills didn’t transfer well beyond the silent. For his performer films, he drew upon what he learned when managing a large vaudeville theater in Mannheim, and he would have stayed in live theater if he hadn’t been drawn back to films for money. Each film demonstrates an insider’s perspective, which is in part what makes them so historically interesting.
Anna May Wong and Piccadilly
When Anna May Wong made Piccadilly in 1929, she was already a popular actress, having appeared in more than thirty films. Only two of these were starring roles: Toll of the Sea in 1924 and the German film Song in 1928. Nevertheless, when she was filming Piccadilly, she was mobbed by Londoners, some of whom “tinted their faces ivory with ochre color to get ‘the Wong complexion,'” according to biographer Graham Hodges. Coolie coats became the rage in the Piccadilly neighborhood where filming took place. Her charm and beauty allowed her to transcend the usual real-life role forced upon the few Chinese in England — that of laundry worker or servant — and her sweet temperament and grace in interviews also prevented people from perceiving her as the stereotype of an evil Asian seductress. That the film industry wouldn’t allow her to transcend these roles in most of her movies is a shame.
Piccadilly for the most part avoids the stereotypes. It is an entertaining film that is especially noteworthy because of Wong’s beautiful performance. Even though we aren’t allowed to see far into her character, she is riveting. She is the featured performer; everything revolves around her. Had she not been Asian, and thus held back by the film industry, she would almost certainly have been a major star. In Piccadilly her character, Shosho, is a smart and talented young woman from the poor Limehouse district. The plot, as it is, hinges on her as an object of desire for a male producer and club owner who decides to replace his long-time girlfriend and aging star (Gilda Gray) with the alluring, mysterious dancer who works in the kitchen. Shosho seems a bit bemused and befuddled at her good fortune, though she’s more than willing to take advantage of her situation. That Shosho is truly more talented than the woman she replaces makes it all seem justified somehow, and quite realistic. (Gilda Gray’s main claim to fame as an actress was her ability to do the shimmy. While biographies credit her with “inventing” the shimmy, this is sheer crap; the shimmy was a black dance long before Gilda got ahold of it. Anyway, Gilda does some good pouting in this film.) The manager who falls for Shosho isn’t portrayed as a predator; he seems to feel some genuine guilt and tries for a time to be fair to both women. But, you know, we’re talking about Anna May Wong; how can he deny his love? Besides, his name is Valentine Wilmot (he’s played in an appealing, humorous way by Jameson Thomas). There are even some touching moments with him, as when he secretly draws a little sketch of her when he’s interviewing her for a position, and, later, when he takes her hand.
At a point in the film (and it’s a little murky), Shosho suddenly becomes ambitious and is willing to cruelly crush the rejected actress. This comes out of the blue and is a false note heading to a silly plot confrontation that wraps up the picture all too tidily. It’s only at this point that the character of Shosho leans toward the usual stereotype of Asian manipulator, though not much is made of it and it doesn’t change Shosho’s basic appeal. Like Sessue Hayakawa, Anna May Wong can transcend any cliche thrown at her.
The plot in Piccadilly doesn’t mean much, anyway; this film, like the other DuPont films, is all about atmosphere, technique, and small realistic touches. My favorite scenes in Piccadilly are those set in the kitchen and in the Limehouse district. When we first see Shosho, it is in the kitchen, where the camera focuses, one by one, on the faces of the workers as they watch her dance on a table. Shosho hasn’t even appeared in the film at this point; it is a slow build, and her dance, when we see it, is fascinating. It’s a simple dance, just a kind of gyration, but there’s something mesmerizing about it. Sensual, but not just that; more hypnotic. I can’t imagine any other actress pulling this off the way Anna May Wong does; it is so odd and unique to her. Shosho is spotted dancing by the manager, too, who has come to find out why the dishes are dirty. (Trivia: the restaurant patron who complains about the state of the dishes is a young Charles Laughton in his first feature film.) Later that night, the manager seeks her out and follows her up a flight of stairs and the screen goes black, with the implication that they sleep together; not long after, she is the new featured dancer. She’s a dancer that already knows her own mind, insisting upon wearing a specific elaborate costume; she calls the shots over both the manager and a man she lives with, Jim.
It’s unclear whether Jim is a lover or just a kind of odd, putzy fellow in love with her; at any rate, he is not happy about the manager’s intrusions. He is a peculiar comic relief character at times; other times, he is just silent and sullen. She confides in Jim, and he supports her, but we don’t understand them. All in all, he is part of the mystery of Shosho’s Limehouse world, the Oriental sphere. Jim and Shosho herself are never fully explained to us; we don’t know their histories or their motives or even their actual relationship. Yet their Limehouse/Chinatown is depicted in such a realistic, dark way that it doesn’t come off as cliched as many depictions of Asian neighborhoods. The Asians in Limehouse are not so much elevated and evil and mystical as they are just getting by, making money through gambling and liquor and small shops, and sleeping in cramped rooms, like any other poor people. There is a kind of equality in the way DuPont depicts the residents in Limehouse, who, though mostly Asian, include a motley set of races and ethnicities who mingle together in clubs, restaurants, and on the streets. DuPont gives us close-ups of faces that remind me in some ways of Depression-era photographs in the States. The people aren’t pathetic; they’re just hanging around, smoking, reading the paper, dancing, trying to have a good time. “You see, this is our Piccadilly,” Shosho tells her manager/lover, as the camera once again pans from one face to another. A woman slips bills into her stocking. Drunken dancers are distorted in a mirror.
The film is always most interesting when it leaves the high-class nightclub where Shosho works and enters the underworld. Late in the movie the problems of interracial relationships are directly commented upon when Shosho and the manager go drinking at a lower rent club. He takes her hand as they watch the happy people dancing. Then another woman, a white woman, enters the club and starts happily dancing with a black man in a top hat. They’re ordered apart by a manager who tells them this isn’t allowed; “are you blind, or wot?” The woman talks back and she’s heckled by many; we don’t hear what’s being said, but it’s clear enough. If the woman doesn’t leave, she will be attacked. Shosho turns away and hides her head and she and her lover leave as quickly as possible, with it now clear that there is no way they can ever be together. This is not because they are incompatible; it is entirely because of the danger created by the racist social restrictions.
Although this film was made in England, it has the dark, German sensibility that is reflected in many Weimar films and art. There’s an edginess, a sense of decadence, and an acceptance of every character. There is no moral lesson. It has a tough urban feel to it, almost a lack of sympathy or even interest in the internal workings of the characters. They are subsumed by their environment, by Piccadilly itself, which ultimately does not accept them.
A lovely print of this is available through the British Film Institute on DVD. It’s a region 2 disc, but it’s worth owning a region-free DVD player to see it and many other quality BFI releases. I hope they, or some other good company like Kino or Criterion, release some of the other early Anna May Wong films, especially her two German films from the same era. She has fans; I believe there would be an audience.
(1) Warren, Patricia. British Film Studios: An Illustrated History. London: Batsford, 2001.
(2) Hodges, Graham Russell Gao. Anna May Wong. New York: Palgrave, 2004.