South West Silents Speak Up: Mark Fuller on Piccadilly (1929)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

Recommended Reading:

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.

 

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Joy: the greatest mop movie ever made

I went to see Joy last week, it was my first cinema visit for 2016. I was already primed to like the film, what with my love of J-Law and B-Coop in David O Russell movies, and like it I did. Not just because there’s a beautiful moment at the very end of the film (SPOILER ALERT?) where the characters have an exchange that mirrors the actors’ journies in David O films – B-Coop acknowledges that J-Law has now not only met his status in stardom but in fact surpassed it, becoming the new centre of gravity for David O, but also because it’s a story about a woman who persists in the face of adversity.

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While there’s a pro-capitalism reading in there – human with financial and familial problems decides to fulfill her dream (the American dream) by working really, really, really hard (because apparently you can have anything you want in life if you just work hard …  and become ruthless in your approach) – but the film also features a compelling story about one downtrodden woman and a mop. And it’s the mop I wanna talk about.

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For those of us who clean our own floors, a good mop story can be quite emotional. And so it was, for me, resident shop mopper. You see, the thing about mopping is that it’s one of the most truly depressing human pursuits; a thankless, literally back aching and no matter how many times you do it, you pretty much always need to do it again kinda task.

And so, the film’s narrative has more than just three acts; much like the ups and downs of mopping there’s the joy when you finish and the floor is finally clean, followed by the despair at seeing the floor sullied once more – ad infinitum. In this way, Joy is a film with as many moments of fist bumping elation as face palming dismay. And, because of that, truly resembles the sisyphean nature of human life.

The true joy, then, in Joy, is at being enabled to experience a spectrum of exaggerated but still lifelike mop related emotions, in a darkened room.

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One of the reasons I love cinema so passionately is because it allows us to experience and engage with such intense emotions – the kind that everyday life, for all its mop like frustration, doesn’t really do. If I were to cry each morning as a new spillage, mud trampled trail or cat related mishap hit the floor, I’d be considered more than melodramatic. But in the cinema, I can cry each and every time adversity hits – in whatever guise or shape that might take. And only the film will be described in terms of relative melodrama. What joy.