I’m a particular fan of British Silent Film; for many decades ill-served by critics, historians and archives, to the extent that few bothered watching them, even while decrying them in print, relying on hand-me-down opinions propagated by twenties and thirties intellectuals with political axes to grind. Although this attitude lingers on in places, the fight-back began around fifteen years ago when a small group of women historians and archivists who knew better, founded the British Silent Film Festival, and a radical reappraisal begun. Long-time unseen films were finally being discovered by new generations who saw how dazzling, inventive and progressive British film could be before the sound era.
Even now, however, British Silent Film is fairly ill-served on home entertainment formats; aside from Hitchcock’s rightly lauded silents, few are available with decent prints and thoughtful scores….but an exception is the BFI release of Piccadilly, a late silent made in 1929 by an international team, combining British and American actors, with German direction, design and photography, in a British production.
The resulting Piccadilly (1929) is a stunning film, a prototype film noir, with two femme fatales; Shosho (Anna May Wong), the young, beautiful Chinese girl washing dishes at the nightclub where Mabel (Gilda Gray) is the ageing star turn. The club’s boss, Valentine (Jameson Thomas), also Mabel’s lover, discovers Shosho, sets her dancing in the club, where she is an immediate sensation, and falls for her.
The story is not the most original, but has fine observation and some killer lines. But the film is a must-see for its visuals; German expressionist flavourings run throughout, featuring the designs of Alfred Junge (best known for his work with Powell and Pressburger in the ’40s), creating a look that would dominate Hollywood films in the forties and fifties – in 1929.
The acting is stunning; Jameson Thomas is a seedier Ronald Colman, trapped between the two women who want him; Gilda Gray goes from awful prima donna to a sympathetic, tragic figure with great conviction, and Anna May Wong is breath-taking, utterly convincing both in the nightclub and in Limehouse, growing from timid girl to full-fledged sexual predator! You simply cannot take your eyes off her: even in the plain clothes she wears at the beginning, she has a cool, almost 1960s quality. The German director, E.A.Dupont, somehow manages to combine all these disparate acting styles, moments of high drama and touches of comed, with deft little bits of business informing us about the people behind their public masks, and about the layered nature of London society. The sequences in the old East End offers a particularly fascinating look at the sexual and racial politics of the time. If you were lucky enough to attend South West Silents’ screening of Dupont’s Varieté (1925) at The Cube late last year you will know already what a fine filmmaker, and handler of actors, he was.
The restored print is stunning, rarely showing its age, more often showing the beautiful cinematography by Werner Brandes, ex-UFA – the sequence where Shosho debuts in the club being one of the most beautiful I have ever seen on film, although the tinting and toning of the restoration seems a bit bold to my eyes, so you may want to turn the colour settings down on your TV.
The extras on the DVD include text biographies of Wong and Dupont, a howlingly bad sound prologue for the film, but most importantly a briefing by Neil Brand about his thinking for his new score, but which also, incidentally, acts as an illuminating commentary and analysis on the film itself . The film’s background is a jazz club of sorts, and the score is a jazz-based one, but he has (thankfully) resisted the temptation of a Charleston-fest, and gone for a style that actually fits the style of the film, the emotions at work; restrained, cool, languid, but with an underlying tension. It works brilliantly.
If you are wary of Silents, or think they begin and end with Nosferatu (1922) and Metropolis (1927), or perhaps think Film Noir started around WWII, then this is an approachable, beautiful and thrilling entry point to a whole area worthy of discovery. Enjoy…
Destination London: German-Speaking Emigres and British Cinema, 1925-1950 by Tim Bergfelder and Christian Cargnelli
Reframing British Cinema, 1918-1928: Between Restraint and Passion by Christine Gledhill
Written by Mark Fuller of South West Silents for 20th Century Flicks.