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Piccadilly, a silent, one of Anna May Wong’s best

Atmospheric and dark, directed by E. A. DuPont

Anna May WongDirector 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.

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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 piccadilly mirrorperformer 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, havingpiccadilly anna in office 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 anna hosePiccadilly 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 piccadilly anna may wongshimmy 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.

piccadilly bar copAt 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, piccadilly bar faceswhen 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.

piccadilly cafeIt’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, piccadilly bar dancersrestaurants, 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 piccadilly shopShosho 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.

piccadilly bar hoseAlthough 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.

piccadilly couple

piccadilly comic relief

(1) Warren, Patricia.  British Film Studios: An Illustrated History.  London: Batsford, 2001.

(2) Hodges, Graham Russell Gao.  Anna May Wong. New York: Palgrave, 2004.

 

 

 

When Joan Crawford was a flapper

Flapper-Our_Dancing_Daughters_1928_I had no idea until recently that Joan Crawford was anyone but that scary, dark haired, angry woman that looked a little like my mother.  I had no idea that there was this other Joan, a bubbly, silly, manic flapper who liked to dance the night away.  I guess I never thought of her as young; I just thought of her as a rather unlikeable cliche.  (Although I did always love her in Mildred Pierce.)  I really hadn’t had much opportunity to see the earliest Crawford films; I knew nothing about “pre-code” until a few years ago, when I discovered silent films and realized than those early films were more far sophisticated that the our dancing daughters anita pagesanitized movies I’d watched on late night TV growing up, pre-cable.  I had no idea how risqué, experimental, fun, and downright surreal they could be.  If only I’d known that many films from many countries from 1910 to 1935 were essentially banned from mainstream viewing for years, straight through and past the supposedly rules-bending sixties themselves (an era that broke no rules that hadn’t been broken back in the 1910s).  Only now are some of these old movies fairly easy to find, restored, with deleted scenes included.  When I tell Anita Page Our Dancing Daughterspeople all of this, most of them don’t believe me.  Maybe we just like to believe that our own era is the most cutting edge, and that history is always a positive progression.

All I can say is that no woman today is wilder than Joan Crawford (and a lot of other women) were in the 1920’s.  Even now, we tend to see the flapper as a quick anomaly — we see the hair and the clothes and think “instant liberation.”  In fact, women were already testing sexual and role boundaries by the early 1910’s, so the flapper hardly came out of the blue.  They just had an easier time wearing short dresses and short hair in public.  Joan Crawford didn’t even invent the flapper image, as a few people have maintained.  It started before her and before Zelda Fitzgerald.  Anita Loos chopped her hair off for one of the earliest bobs in 1916, when she was doing publicity interviews for D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance.  (And boy did Anita look cute.)  But Crawford certainly rode the flapper wave, and she helped to popularize the trend when the film Our Dancing Daughters became a national success and was shown in places like Omaha.our daughters joan sexy

I don’t think Joan alone made Our Dancing Daughters popular; the movie did, though, make her a success.  Our Dancing Daughters centers a trio of feisty flappers, and is filmed showing plenty of leg and plenty of lip.   It’s quite a good little movie that explores, in a mostly lighthearted way, what women can and can’t get by with, and what they have to do to stand up for themselves.  Joan is the center of the story — she plays an unstoppable girl named Diana who dances her feet off and wears cute fringy dresses and has a heart of gold.  But I think Anita Page as her rival is really terrific, too, and provides some of the movie’s best drama.  Even beyond the movie’s heroines, I’m sure that the whole milieu of drinking, dancing, men, fashion, more drinking, flirting, straight-talking — all of it must have held great appeal to young audiences.  And it has just enough sentiment to especially appeal to young women of a certain age who want a good romance to be moony over. The script (written by three women) and direction (by Harry Beaumont) are plain good and allow the movie to transcend others of its kind.Joan Crawford Our Dancing Daughters

Joan Crawford is so unlike herself in this movie.  Or maybe she was most like herself before the Hollywood machine got ahold of her.  I’ve read that Joan was really a redhead, and her hair in this is light and short and really represents a rebellious liveliness.  Her eyes are downright manic at times, as if she has much to prove and has to prove it fast.  She seems witty, quick, funny.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say she was a great actress, but that doesn’t really matter.  She seems to be having a great time.  I’ve seen her in her other silent films, and she generally plays a low-key, romantic partner to a likable male star our daughters joan crazy(like Billy Haines).  She’s cute in these, but not remarkable and not even traditionally pretty.  She does have a great body, which we see a surprising amount of at times.  But she seems a bit toothy, a bit starey-eyed, a bit odd.  Awkward, really, compared to some of the more glamorous actresses of the period.  It’s sad, the way this gets cleaned up as the thirties go on, as they make Joan cool, glam, then colder and colder, as if she grows more distant as time passes.  In the sequel to Our Dancing Daughters, Our Modern Maidens, her character is known as “Billie,” which was actually what Joan was called before becoming an film actress.  (Apparently Fairbanks Sr. called her this, too, for years.)  Billie is a slang-y, boyish name, a spirited name.  Within a few years, it’s hard to imagine her as anything but staid cold Joan.  It’s hard for me to really understand how and why this happened, since Our Dancing Daughters was a huge hit.  Biographers refer to her desire to insinuate herself in the Fairbanks/Pickford circle when she started seeing Joan Crawford Our Dancing DaughtersFairbanks Jr.; they refer to the influence of Mayer at MGM.  They talk about Crawford’s own desire to fit in and to be taken seriously.  It almost seems that she decides to become another person.  Although I know many people would disagree with me, I really hate to see the glamorization that happens to actors and Our Dancing Daughters Crawford Paige Sebastianactresses as the thirties progresses.  I could care less about the gowns. I’m partial to realism and the open sense of fun that’s in the earliest films.  I like the idea that the Joan in these silent films really is a vivacious, sincere, sweet-but-daring sort, and that she captures the spirit of many young women of the day.

Our Dancing Daughters stands up over time because it really isn’t glamorous and overly stylized, but is in fact rather complex, with the girls winning and losing as they fight for independence. My favorite part of the film, in fact, involves not Joan but Anita Page, who delivers a great tirade as she stands drunkenly teetering at the top of a staircase.  She yells down to a group of our dancing daughters anita pagewasherwomen cleaning on their knees below: “Women!  Women working!  Hey — why are you working?  Haven’t you any daughters?  Pretty daughters?  Pretty daughters — doll ’em up — a rich man wants his money’s worth!”  So the decadent clothes, the drinking, the spangly parties and the search for wealthy suitors ultimately backfires in a dramatic fashion.  Page is so full of false hysterical hilarity in this scene that it is downright disturbing.  Flapper tragedy may seem a cliche to us now, but this was filmed right in the midst of it all.

By the time the second sequel appears in 1930, a talkie called Our Blushing Brides, that original energy is completely gone and it’s all become a boring formula.  Joan Crawford herself even noted that when Our Dancing Daughters became a success, she became much more self-conscious, as if she were watching herself, analyzing herself.  I think filmmaking itself goes through the same process as the thirties go on.

Girls shooting craps in Our Modern Maidens

Girls shooting craps in Our Modern Maidens

Our Dancing Daughters intertitle