From March 4th until April 16th, the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens is showcasing eighteen films starring Anna May Wong. Of special interest is Piccadilly, a 1929 film restored three years ago by the British Film Institute. Directed by E.A. Dupont, and starring Gilda Gray and Jameson Thomas along with Wong, it is a remarkably adult melodrama about a romantic triangle in London’s show business district. Free of the Victorian sentimentality that ruled films of its time, Piccadilly has a starkly modern sensibility that borders at times on the perverse. Few silents, or talkies for that matter, focus so single-mindedly on sex, an obsessive and cruel sex at that.
Wong steals the film from its ostensible stars. Born in Los Angeles in 1905, she was the first Asian-American actress to forge a career in Hollywood. At the age of seventeen she starred in the first Technicolor feature, Toll of the Sea, a lugubrious Madame Butterfly knock-off that is opening the series. Douglas Fairbanks cast her in his epic Thief of Baghdad (March 18), and she played a delightfully mischievous Tiger Lily in a popular silent version of Peter Pan. But Wong couldn’t escape racial stereotyping. At times she found herself cast below Caucasian actresses who were made up to look Asian. Wong moved to Europe, hoping like Louise Brooks to establish herself as a serious actress. She made two films in Germany before accepting a role in Piccadilly, which was being shot in London.
Apart from Alfred Hitchcock, British cinema in 1929 had a terrible reputation. Made up primarily of “quota quickies,” often wretched B-movies subsidized by the government, the industry lacked the technical resources to compete with the United States or Germany. Foreign stars would have been especially desperate to resort to working there. But faced at home with demeaning roles in films like A Trip to Chinatown or The Chinese Parrot, Wong had little to lose.
Director E.A. Dupont needed a hit as well. The former film critic had directed Variety, an international sensation, while living in Germany, but had been much less successful working in the United States. When Dupont shot Moulin Rouge in England, his drinking and autocratic methods sent the project over budget. Piccadilly could have been his last chance to regain his footing.
Unfortunately, the script to Piccadilly is deeply, disappointingly conventional, thanks to Arnold Bennett, a largely forgotten British author who once claimed to have written 335,340 words in a year. Here he concocted a backstage melodrama about divas, cads, and scullery maids that even then seemed pretty shopworn. Bennett was supposed to be an expert on both middle-class and female characters, but it was Dupont who distilled the script’s plot into its essential ingredient: sex. Working with Alfred Junge, a set designer for Hitchcock and later for the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Dupont created a dream vision of show business as a languorous hothouse of sexual desire.
Dupont wasn’t interested in the logic or mechanics of the triangle at the center of Piccadilly. He concentrated on its erotic qualities, even though he was limited in what he could do. He couldn’t show Wong kissing her Caucasian lover, for example. What he could film was vivid images of sexual desire that smolder in a surprisingly contemporary manner. Wong, a ravishing beauty, soaks up the camera’s gaze. Playing a dishwasher who elevates herself to dancing star, she doesn’t act so much as pose, framed by cameraman Werner Brandes in tableaux that resemble fashion shoots. Wong has a stillness that, at the risk of political correctness, is inscrutable. She shows the other characters what she wants them to see, keeping her true feelings hidden. Audiences, on the other hand, can see how casually and contemptuously she toys with men and women besotted with her looks.
Piccadilly arrived in the United States during the early days of sound movies, when audiences flocked to atrocious films just to hear actors talk. A sultry, downbeat story of sexual obsession among heartless, murdering show biz types was always going to be a tough sell, even without competition from talkies. In fact, Dupont tacked on a couple of stiff, unrealistic sound sequences for the American release. The film, and Wong in particular, got good reviews, but it was not a box-office hit.
The opportunity to see Wong’s two other European films–Song and The Pavement Butterfly (both showing March 11 and 12)–in archival prints from the British Film Institute more than justifies a subway ride to Astoria. Wong returned to Hollywood in the early 1930s. She co-starred with Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (March 24, 25, 26), but within a few years she was trapped in a B-movie hell in which Asian women could only be servants, singers, or fortune tellers. Many films in the series, like Daughter of Shanghai (April 8, 9), King of Chinatown (April 8th), and Dangerous to Know (April 9th), are drab, dispiriting affairs, full of cheap sets, bad acting, and unwitting racism. But for one film, at least, Anna May Wong showed the world how powerful she could be.