Wong was right
Anna May Wong upstages
the star in the 1929 British
silent picture ‘Piccadilly’
It was the hit of 1929, a British silent movie that gave top billing to a then-star of the screen -- only to be upstaged by a Chinese-American actress whose onscreen look, style and demeanor showcased the year previous in the German film "Song" only further established Anna May Wong as a European sensation.
"Wonder of wonders," hails the Oct. 1929 issue of Photoplay, "a truly fine British picture! Gilda Gray is starred, but (Wong) brings home the bacon."
Anna May Wong in 'Piccadilly'
Where: The Doris Duke Theatre, Honolulu Academy of Arts, 900 S. Beretania St.
When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, Saturday, Monday and Tuesday, and 4 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $5 general and $3 Academy members
Now thanks to restoration by the British Film Institute's National Film and Television Archive, this film that starred one of the most overlooked actresses of her generation will screen for five days at the Honolulu Academy of Arts' theater, starting tomorrow.
Complete with a new original score by Neil Brand, "Piccadilly" takes its name from the London nightclub, where the owner, Valentine, (Jameson Thomas) and his girlfriend, Mabel (Gray), a dancer past her prime at the "ripe old age" of 28, still work at the once-fashionable nightspot.
Wong plays the scullery maid, Shosho, who is fired one night after she causes a commotion in the club's kitchen by entrancing the dishwashers with an impromptu table-top dance.
But Valentine thinks Shosho may be the woman to help revitalize the Piccadilly -- even his girlfriend's featured solo dancing act is not helping business. Valentine offers Shosho a chance to dance at the Piccadilly, and she tells him confidently that she's not afraid to appear on stage because she had previously performed at a club in the city's Chinese district.
Meanwhile, Mabel thinks that Shosho is being hired back as a scullery maid, and once Mabel learns the truth -- that Shosho's exotic and sultry dance routine wows the audience and makes the club "hip" again -- she becomes angry and jealous over Valentine's growing involvement with the Chinese girl.
"Piccadilly" becomes a tale of murder and intrigue after that, but in addition to marking Wong's emergence as a star, the film's camerawork and visual design has been lauded.
"In 'Piccadilly,' (Director E.A.) Dupont shows himself to be fascinated by the Chinese femme fatale portrayed by Anna May Wong, whom he surrounds with decadent glamour," wrote British film author and critic Roy Armes. "Dupont's cinema is marked by his mastery of light and surface texture -- the beauty of women's faces and bodies, the effect of smoke or shadow -- all captured with an admirably fluid camera."
COURTESY OF MILESTONE FILM AND VIDEO|
An extravagant 15-foot high Austrian poster from 1929 for "Piccadilly" shows off the movie's new star in all her "exotic" glory.
WHEN THE British Film Institute's National Film and Television Archive team started work on the restoration of "Piccadilly," they discovered that the original silent version negative was too decayed to be completely usable. Consequently, damaged sections had to be replace with material from a number of different sources, including sections from an American sound (and censored) version.
Because of the variety of source material, and the fact that some of the titles had been rewritten for the sound version, a complete set of new titles was produced. The film's amber and blue tinting is copied from an original '29 silent release print of "Piccadilly" which has survived and is now in the BFI's National collection.
It's a film that should help spur a re-evaluation of the historical importance of Wong.
An interview with Anna May Wong biographer Graham Gao Russell Hodges, whose book will be released in January, will appear in Sunday's Mauka-Makai.
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