It should be easier to see every Anna May Wong film, but since I mostly rely on Netflix and film festivals to unearth rarities, most of Wong’s work remains unseen. She made over 50 movies in America and Europe and always provided a credible if not terrific performance. Despite being typecast as an obvious Chinese type in many of her parts, she never displays a limited range and always seems natural. A true movie star and a great professional, she is extremely riveting in both her silent and sound roles. She’s definitely an unusual and much loved screen icon.
In “Piccadilly,” a 1929 British silent film directed by Ewald Andrê Dupont, Wong plays Shosho, a nightclub scullery worker who displays a fine talent for dancing. The Piccadilly nightclub’s top act, the dancing duo Mabel Greenfield (Gilda Gray) and Victor Smiles (Cyril Ritchard) bring in capacity crowds nightly, much to the delight of the club owner Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas). But Victor likes Mabel too much, which gets on her nerves. Mabel likes Valentine a lot, and soon Gil is shown the door.
One night, a fastidious diner, played wittingly by Charles Laughton, complains about a dirty plate. This causes Valentine to trek to the scullery, where he encounters the exotic (to him) Shosho dancing on a table while entertaining the scullery maids. He immediately terminates her, but relents when he sees her later after she’s forgotten her bobble-head mascot of Confucius. An off-screen audition lands Shosho a job dancing at the club. When she appears onstage, the audience becomes transfixed as she dances an Asian-themed sway that epitomizes her beauty and grace. She becomes a sensation in London while Valentine falls for her. Wong shows her wonderful acting skills as we visibly see her rapid transformation from a shabby scullery girl to a modern and popular dancer.
Although Wong effortlessly draws your eyes to her, Gilda Grey’s Mabel provides a capable and sympathetic rival. Grey, like Wong, is very pretty. Shosho utters some cruel lines about Mabel being too old for Valentine, but I think she’s really making a comment on the allure of something entirely new. This melodramatic movie doesn’t wait out the details of this love triangle, but instead ties it up rather hurriedly and in a coarse fashion. At a time when screen conventions would not allow true love between people of different races, nobody really fares well at the end. But Anna May Wong’s scenes really stand out and provide a great look at her subtle talents.