Starring Anna May Wong, Gilda Gray, and Jameson Thomas. Rating unavailable.
If you need evidence of why Anna May Wong was a star in the boon days of cinema, and should have been an even bigger one, look no further than 1929's Piccadilly, a recently restored artifact of British cinema hitting an early high at the very end of the silent era.
Wong, a cousin of the great cinematographer James Wong Howe, left Hollywood when she got tired of playing sullen servant girls. She found her best roles in England, particularly here as the vivacious Sho-Sho, promoted from dishwasher to chief attraction when club owner Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas) happens to spot her "capering about in the scullery", as a Cockney pal later puts it (in one of the nifty, art-deco title cards).
The rakish Wilmot, with his pencil mustache, is clearly smitten by Sho-Sho, but this creates a problem with the owner's other star and rival in love, Mabel (Polish-born Gilda Gray, who didn't survive the transition to talkies). She's meanwhile fending off the advances of her dance partner, Victor, played by Cyril Ritchard, a stage great later identified with Captain Hook in various productions of Peter Pan. (Other familiar faces pop up here, such as Charles Laughton as an unruly club patron, and Ray Milland as a suave, and skinny, bystander.)
It's not enough, of course, for Piccadilly to cross the colour line; Sho-Sho's journey into the upper reaches of white society must also spell some kind of doom for everyone involved. But constraints of plot and period only serve to underline Wong's charisma, which consists of an open sexuality mixed with cool detachment that still reads as utterly modern. Excellent as well is King Ho-Chang, in his only screen role, as Jim, a young Chinese Londoner also smitten with our minxish heroine, seen in an endless parade of fetching '20s outfits and costumes. In a bit of unusual gender-tweaking, she even makes Jim try on one of her outfits, and a scene in which she kisses him through the newspaper bearing her first rave review--well, that one's for the ages.
Not everything in Piccadilly works as well. The film is sluggish until Wong enters the scene, the dance scenes are not convincingly choreographed, and the jazzy new score from Neil Brand is too repetitive to be effective. But the high-contrast, colour-tinted images--courtesy of director Ewald André Dupont and cinematographer Werner Brandes, veterans of German expressionism--have a shadow-laden life of their own, especially when the tale leaves the nightclub and hits the smoky streets and pubs of a London long since vanished.