She's so striking that even dressed in a greasy apron and stockings with holes, she takes your breath away.
Anna May Wong is the kind of gorgeous that burns right through a camera lens, and the kind of mesmerizing that seems without effort or end. Though you may not have heard of her, she's the definition of memorable, which is undoubtedly the chief reason the 1929 silent film "Piccadilly" can now be seen in an especially rich and lengthy sepia-drenched version restored by the British Film Institute.
Relish the second chance it offers.
Wong, the first Chinese-American actress to achieve international fame, was always far less appreciated on her home soil than she was in Europe, where opportunities for Asian actresses went beyond supporting non-Asian headliners. "Piccadilly," made in England under the creative watch of German director E. A. Dupont ("Variety"), is less known than Wong's contributions to Josef von Sternberg's "Shanghai Express" (1932), but is still arguably the most important performance of her career.
In Dupont's film, Wong plays Shosho, a dishwasher who dances and seduces her way up into the dining room of London's posh Piccadilly Club. One evening, when dirty plates coming out of the kitchen irk a diner (Charles Laughton, in a funny cameo), and the ensuing scene disturbs the nightspot's popular floor show, club owner Valentine (Jameson Thomas) wanders back to find out who's responsible for the lapse. There in the scullery he spots Shosho dancing confidently atop a table, swaying her hips and gams as though they were clad in fine silks instead of the aforementioned apron and torn stockings.
Valentine is instantly smitten, and quickly deduces that this scullery maid is to pots and pans as diamonds are to coal mines. He'd like to be the one to polish her. The problem is that he already has a girlfriend, who is the female half of his club's moneymaking dance duo, Victor and Mabel.
Victor (Cyril Ritchard) is fired in a fit of jealousy that supercedes Valentine's greed. Mabel (Gilda Gray) is a messier issue because, even though she's unable to pull an audience on her own, Valentine does claim to love her. By the time Shosho makes her high-heeled climb to stardom over all their backs, viewers have to be convinced that the fashionable up-and-comer is irresistible poison. Wong wordlessly accomplishes all that and more in a single look, especially if you close your ears to Neil Brand's too-jazzy score.
Racially speaking, "Piccadilly" is as casually insensitive and careless as you might expect from a film of this era, but it's also surprisingly crafty about finding ways to incite discussion. It makes you wonder, for example, why Shosho recoils in horror when she and Valentine witness a bar scuffle over a white woman dancing with a black man. Is it because Shosho is scared and appalled, or because deep down she knows she'll never win full entry to this privileged white world she courts at all cost?
Dupont meanders too much at times, particularly to indulge Alfred Junge's fabulous set designs. Once Wong arrives onscreen it's impossible not to be bored every time she's absent from the action. Gray tries hard, but she's a dime-a-dozen leading lady. Wong, on the other hand, was a true original.
Janice Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.