What We’re Watching: Anna May Wong in Piccadilly

Watched Piccadilly last night on Blu-ray with the whole family and really liked it a lot. Piccadilly is a 1929 British silent drama film directed by E.A. Dupont, which revolves around a love triangle at a London nightclub, involving the club owner, his mistress, and a Chinese dishwasher, played by the recently rediscovered Anna May Wong.

Wong is going through a little bit of a renaissance these days, from constantly film Retrospectives and screenings from TCM to MoMA, several new biographies and books examining her career, and film documentaries, most notably Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words, directed by Yunah Hong. In 2022, the U.S. Mint even honored Anna May Wong by featuring her on a quarter, which features President George Washington on one side and Wong on the other.

In this environment, there was sure to be interest in the painstaking recent restoration of Wong’s powerful performance in Piccadilly, filmed in London during one of her periodic exiles from Hollywood.

There have been plenty of reviews of this movie over the last hundred years, so we don’t need to add another one. But we have a few thoughts.

Dancing?

The movie is spectacularly filmed, thoroughly riveting, and Anna May Wong is breathtakingly good.

With one caveat.

Though Wong portrays a nightclub dancer who becomes the toast of London, her dancing scene is really not good; in fact, jaw-droppingly bad. Wong kind of flails around like a child who has never had a single dance lesson in her life. She’s gorgeous, and I’m sure the gentlemen shown in the crowd at the club would have enjoyed it every bit as much as they do in the film. But the newspaper critics’ rave reviews the next morning are difficult to believe.

The movie opens with a well-choreographed and filmed dance number by two other performers, so that made Wong’s dance especially disappointing, since there was obviously a talented choreographer working on the film.

Copyright Issues

Another interesting point – Piccadilly was released briefly as a silent in 1929, and it failed financially. The film’s backers then rereleased it with sound soon afterwards. The sound version was basically the same, the sparse dialogue was still indicated with intertitles. A synchronized music track was added. The biggest change involved the addition of one exceptionally boring prologue to introduce the film, which took place after the events of the film and thus turned the entire production into an extended flashback.

The silent version is now lost. The sound version survives but remains in copyright. So the restoration worked on the sound version. They just removed the soundtrack and added a new one, and then cut the prolog, all to get around the copyright issue. Is the copyright owner upset? Who would think they’d have to renew their copyright on the sound version and the lost silent to prevent someone using it?

While the restoration is terrific, it would have been nice to be able to hear the music originally composed for the film. 

That Austrian Poster

Finally, in 1929, the movie poster in Austria featured a fake image of Wong bare-breasted, which is not in the film. We wonder how many moviegoers bought tickets based on the poster image, and whether they rioted when they learned the truth. One wouldn’t have wanted to make 1929 Austrians angry. 

^^^

Content by Oblivioni.

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