Piccadilly (1929) – reviewed by George

This British silent film is very good, very well-made. The limited opening credits are shown in heavy nighttime traffic in the banner advertising spaces on double-decker buses passing by. “An Original Screen Play by Arnold Bennett” – “Gilda Gray as Mabel Greenfield”.
Then at The Piccadilly Club, a sign – “Mabel & Vic – London’s Greatest Dance Attraction”.
Vic is played by Cyril Ritchard. He loves Mabel, but she fancies Valentine “Val” Wilmot (Jameson Thomas), the owner of the club.
As the camera shows us the interior of the club we learn that the only reason so many women are present in Soho – is Vic.
There’s a clever opening for the dance sequence: On a music stand a music folder labeled “Mabel and Vic” is in closeup. Instead of the camera panning out to include the orchestra in the shot, the music stand lowers on wires until a musician reaches for it and places it on the stage, exposing an under-lit view of the orchestra. The dance begins with Mabel and Vic dancing down the stairs that surround the orchestra, Mabel on the left-hand stairs, Vic on the right. Quickly it’s apparent that Vic is the better dancer, whether or not this was the intention. Vic has a very short solo, then Mabel has an over-long one, all under Val’s watchful eye. I took this to be a tell that Val is crazy about Mabel and jealous of Vic. However, there is no foundation for Val’s jealousy – as it turns out, Mabel strongly dislikes Vic’s attentions, such as kissing her bare shoulder, etc.
During the dance there are frequent cutaways to a gentleman who is more involved with his food than with Mabel’s dancing, and I could swear that it is Charles Laughton. His problem is a dirty plate and we see the plate make the rounds up through the ranks until it is handed to Val, who grumpily takes it downstairs in an amusing trip through blame-shifting. In the scullery a young Chinese girl is dancing slinkily to entertain the troops and obviously she is attracting more attention than the work. Val waves the plate around and has the girl fired. She is Shosho (Anna May Wong).
That same night Val also fires Vic, making Mabel the Piccadilly’s sole star. But also that night Shosho comes around to get her final check and she and Val go up to his office alone after hours.
There’s a very clever piece of business about a drawing of Shosho that Val has made and does not want Mabel to see.
There will be a murder and a trial and the last few shots will remind us that our serious problems are of little consequence overall – not exactly destined for the history books.
The new score by Neil Brand is excellent, especially at the beginning with a sort of jazzy Broadway sensibility for the big dance number.
Whether or not you like silents you should take a look at this one.

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