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Milestone Film & Video presents

Piccadilly (1929)

"They wouldn't let me dance again, sir. There was trouble between two men—knives, policemen."- Shosho (Anna May Wong)

Stars: Gilda Gray, Anna May Wong, Jameson Thomas
Other Stars: Cyril Ritchard, Charles Laughton, King Ho Chang, Hannah Jones
Director: E.A. Dupont

Manufacturer: Deluxe
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (sensuality, mild violence)
Run Time: 01h:48m:48s
Release Date: 2005-03-01
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B-BA- B-


DVD Review

Plenty of stage plays and films have been devoted to backstage intrigue. Frequently they show up as musicals, and are peculiarly suited to the sound format. That makes this late silent a rather unusual production. It's also notable as Charles Laughton's first film and for rejuvenating Anna May Wong's career as a star in Europe.

Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas) is the owner and manager of the Piccadilly Club in London. The main attraction at the Piccadilly is a dance act by Victor Smiles (Cyril Ritchard) and Wilmot's lover, Mabel Greenfield (Gilda Gray). When Smiles quits to go to America, Wilmot is left only with the less-talented half of the duo and needs to come up with something quickly for the sake of the club. That something is in the sultry form of Shosho (Wong), a worker in the kitchen scullery who is caught by Wilmot dancing on a table. Seeing the possibilities for an exotic routine, he quickly hires Shosho as his new headline act. Just as quickly, he becomes obsessed with her, with dangerous results once Mabel finds out about his interest and Shosho's lover Jim (King Ho Chang) suspects the same.

Visually, there's a lot to like here. The Piccadilly Club is nicely realized, particularly in the stratification of the staff from the club to the restaurant to the kitchen to the scullery, each with its own unique look, paralleling English society. The club set is quite elaborate, and the dance sequences work pretty well for a primitive silent musical. German director E.A. Dupont is consistently using interesting angles and shadows, and sometimes points the camera at body parts such as hands and feet (though it's not always quite clear why; perhaps Doris Wishman was influenced by this picture).

The cast is generally quite good, with Wong in particular standing out. On several occasions she gives a knowing smile that reveals the gears turning rapidly inside her head; she has little dialogue and frankly needs very little to get her point across. Laughton makes a big impression with his brief scene as a gluttonous diner who throws a fit at receiving a dirty plate. Ritchard demonstrates a surprising aptitude for dance. The ostensible lead, Gray, is fairly unlikeable and rather melodramatic at times; she clearly can't hold her own with Wong on the screen any more than she can in the story. Jameson Thomas tends to be rather stiff much of the time; how much of that should be chalked up to being a British production is unclear, but it's hard to get too interested in his predicament. Jim is played by King-Ho Chang, a noted restauranteur in London, but he does an admirable job with a slow burn at Shosho's antics. She repeatedly humiliates him, such as making him don her dance costume to show it to Wilmot, and the resentment is palpable. He's particularly good when he finds a token he gave to Shosho, a Confucious bobblehead doll, on Wilmot's desk, as the realization of the truth comes over him.

On the down side, the pacing of the film is quite lacking. I have a strong stomach for slow-moving dramas but even I found it to be deathly dull for long stretches, and on a couple occasions resorted to fast-forwarding. I question whether this might have been intended to be run at a somewhat faster frame rate. The screenplay by novelist Arnold Bennett (The Old Wive's Tale) culminates in a confusing courtroom sequence and a somewhat clichéed finale. And the prurient need not get too excited about the cover art; no such undraping of Miss Wong is included in the film (at least in this restoration). Nonetheless, it's quirky (in how many other films will you find a Confucious bobblehead?) and worth watching for Wong, if nothing else.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The restoration by the British Film Institute adds another 16 or so minutes to the running time from the chopped-down version that was shipped off to America. That's good, in that a more complete version is seen here, but bad in that the BFI source means the issue of PAL/NTSC ghosting is present here again. The ghosting is particularly bad in the dance sequences, where the rapid movement creates a good deal of irritating blurriness. In the many static shots, however, the picture looks quite fine. The opening credits are rather foggy but then the first scene opens to startling clarity and definition (at least until the rapid movement starts). The picture is digitally tinted and otherwise looks quite attractive, with a minimal amount of frame damage. Those not bothered by PAL/NTSC artifacts will find this to be lovely.

Image Transfer Grade: B

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0(music only)no

Audio Transfer Review: Neil Brand contributes a swing score, which has a lush sound considering his ensemble is limited to seven people. It's energetic, but not wholly appropriate to the moods of the film as they change. While mickey-mousing is frowned upon, total disregard of the onscreen action is just as bad if not worse. There's also a 1930s feel to the music that's not quite in synch with the time period in any event, so I'm not at all taken by this score. It does, however, have excellent immediacy and vibrance, so technically there's very little to complain about from a transfer standpoint and thus the high grade.

Audio Transfer Grade: A- 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
Production Notes
2 Documentaries
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 01h:08m:49s

Extra Extras:
  1. Prologue to sound version
  2. Still galleries and presskit
Extras Review: Milestone provides quite a few extras for this release. First is a sound prologue, which just provides a wholly unnecessary framing story for the feature. Neil Brand discusses the score in a 19m:56s documentary, and although I didn't find it wholly convincing, it's certainly interesting to find out what his aims were in this score. Dangerous to Know is excerpts from the Anna May Wong Symposium from April 2004, featuring Nancy Kwan and Jacqueline Kim, among others. Unfortunately, the audio on this program is utterly miserable (worse than the 1930 sound prologue) and painful to listen to. I felt I was missing most of the content.

A lavish little booklet contains production notes and biographical information regarding Wong. The still gallery, presented in slideshow form, also contains a look at the original British presskit (though never in form large enough to make anything out besides headlines). On the DVD, we find a Milestone press kit for the DVD with more bios and information, plus five essays under the cutesy title Five Authors in Search of Anna, all in pdf format. Don't let the name put you off; they're worthwhile reading that provide some good background information about Wong and the motion picture. The layer change is particularly obtrusive, since this was mastered as a dual-layer disc and not RSDL in an apparent attempt to coax out the last few bits.

Extras Grade: B-

Final Comments

A generally attractive restoration of a stylish film, though a better PAL/NTSC conversion might have helped.

Mark Zimmer 2005-03-01