by Chuck Williamson
One of Britain’s last silent films, Piccadilly visualizes the metropolitan space as pure modernist spectacle—a twisted knot of kinetic energy and abstract fragmentation—but also presents that same London milieu as a bisected heteropolis, a location defined by its impenetrable racial, cultural, and spatial boundaries. Mixing social realism with fluid formalism, Piccadilly weaves into its skeletal plot an examination of cross-cultural relations that belies its narrative simplicity. Set in the smoke-filled parlor rooms and jazz-clubs of London’s West End, the film establishes these spatial barriers almost immediately, crosscutting between the restrained, respectable, antiseptic dance-hall of the upper-classes and the cavernous, carnivalesque, near-decayed scullery—where Shosho (Anna May Wong), a sultry immigrant dishwasher, gives a wild, erotic dance performance. Eventually, Shosho catches the attention of the club impresario, Valentine (Jameson Thomas), and not only supplants dance diva Miss Mabel (Gilda Gray) as the club’s main attraction, but also the love interest of her benefactor. From here, the plot twists into backstage politics, sexual triangles, and—of course!—a unexpected murder.
Make no mistake—for most, the primary attraction of this film will be the luminous presence of Anna May Wong, who functions in the film as an alluring, sexually frank alternative to those cloistered Brits. But like Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box, Wong infuses into her performance a dash of mystery and ambiguity, transforming her potentially one-dimensional pleasure-seeker into an elusive and isolated figure who is both defined and destroyed by her desires. For Wong, a single sensuous gaze comes loaded with an infinite number of meanings, and the viewer cannot help but be mesmerized by her mere presence. It is a riveting, sumptuous performance that, under different circumstances, could have turned her into a cinematic icon.