Piccadilly (1929)
Directed by Ewald André Dupont

Artistic Value: * * *
Entertainment Value: * * * *

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After Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas), the owner of the posh Piccadilly Club, dismisses one of his star dancers, his business enters a slump. Hoping to revitalize it, he hires a young Chinese woman, Shosho (Anna May Wong), who had been employed in the club's kitchens, to perform an oriental number. Valentine subsequently finds himself attracted to Shosho, which fills both her love-smitten cousin, Jim (King Ho Chang), and another of Valentine's dancers, Mabel Greenfield (Gilda Gray), with jealousy.

Ewald André Dupont's Piccadilly may be melodramatic and maudlin, but it is also consistently entertaining and sometimes genuinely inspired.

There is little about the story that is likely to impress the viewer. Except for the fact that one of the protagonists is Chinese, it is a pretty standard tragic romance. Nonetheless, individual scenes are well crafted, and the actors do give their characters life, especially Anna May Wong. There are, consequently, some charming, comic, and touching moments. These virtues may not lift the narrative above the ordinary, and do little for the terribly overwrought conclusion, but they do lend the film a considerable appeal.

The dance routines, regrettably, are generally not memorable. Of the two performed by Anna May Wong, the first, in which she gyrates for the entertainment of the kitchen workers in the Piccadilly Club, is a joy, but the second, sadly, is rather awkward and dated. Another sequence performed by Gilda Gray and her partner is entertaining, if not especially impressive.

Fortunately, there are a good number of memorable scenes scattered throughout the movie. That in which Shosho and Vincent visit a working class dance hall and watch as a black man is thrown out for dancing with a white woman is fascinating both for revealing some of the prejudices of white Londoners, and for its depictions of the simple, lively pleasures of the poor of that city.

Without a doubt, however, the best element of the film is Anna May Wong. She really is a consistent joy to watch. Not only does she have an impish, appealing, and sexy onscreen presence, but she proves herself to be a talented actress. Over and over again, she is able to convey her character's emotions with the slightest change in her expression or with the subtlest of glances. I cannot believe that there is any sensitive viewer who will not find himself carried away by her.

That said, Ms Wong's is not the only accomplished performance in Piccadilly, even if none of the others is equal to hers. All of the leads, in fact, acquit themselves well, and King Ho Chang is often nearly as good as Ms Wong is. Unfortunately, he does, at times, give in to excesses that do prevent his work from being as effective as it could have been.

I will not claim that Piccadilly is a great movie, but it is still a real pleasure to watch. If nothing else, it is sure to leave the viewer wanting to see more of Anna May Wong.

Review by Keith Allen

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