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Silent Sunday Nights - December 2018
Remind Me


Best known for her portrayal of Marlene Dietrich's fellow prostitute in Shanghai Express (1932), Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong (1905-1961) has been rediscovered by contemporary audiences. The Wong revival began in 2003, with three biographies of the actress, and the release of a restored print of her final silent film, Piccadilly (1929). A British production, Piccadilly was directed by the German filmmaker E. A. Dupont, and stars Gilda Gray as an aging dancer in a London nightclub owned by her lover, played by Jameson Thomas. But it's the third-billed Wong who steals the show (and the lover), as Shosho, a scullery maid in the club who replaces Gray as the star attraction. Wong plays Shosho as a fascinating mix of greedy child and thoroughly modern femme fatale, years before the advent of film noir. She is cool, confident, manipulative, and frankly sensual - a performance that is all the more remarkable at a time when Asian women (including Wong herself) were usually stereotyped in films as evil Dragon Ladies or submissive Lotus Blossoms.

Wong was born Wong Liu Tsong (her name means "Frosted Yellow Willows") in Los Angeles, where her parents ran a laundry. Fascinated by films from an early age, she began acting at 14. A small role in Douglas Fairbanks' The Thief of Bagdad (1924) led to stardom, but fed up with the stereotypical "exotic Oriental" roles, Wong went to Europe in 1928, hoping for better parts. After making two films in Germany, she was cast in Piccadilly by Dupont, who had been working in Britain since 1926.

Dupont, a film critic turned screenwriter and director, had demonstrated a brilliant visual flair with the German film Variete (1925), and had been signed to a contract by Universal. But his stint in Hollywood was unsuccessful, and he returned to Europe. Like Variete, and his earlier British film, Moulin Rouge (1928), Piccadilly demonstrated Dupont's mastery of camera movement and lighting. From the opening scenes, shot in art director Alfred Junge's enormous and complex nightclub set, through noirish scenes of London streets and alleys, Dupont's direction and Werner Brandes's fluid camerawork are stunning.

Although overshadowed by Wong, Gilda Gray gave a strong performance as the aging dancer threatened by her younger, more glamorous rival. The character must have hit uncomfortably close to home. Although she was only a few years older than Wong, Gray had been living hard for more than a decade. Born in Poland (her real name was Marianna Michalska), she emigrated to the U.S. with her family as a child. By the time she was 15, she was a wife and mother, and was singing in her father-in-law's Milwaukee saloon. That's where Gray claimed she invented a dance she called the "shimmy" in 1916. The sexy dance was a sensation, and she left husband, family, and old name behind, and made her way to New York, eventually becoming a star of the Ziegfeld Follies. Signed to a contract at Paramount, Gray made only a handful of films. The part of Mabel in Piccadilly would be her last starring role. In 1929, Gray lost her fortune in the stock market crash, and in 1931 she suffered a heart attack. Her career never recovered from these blows. She died in 1959.

Three future stars also had small or bit parts in Piccadilly. Cyril Ritchard, later an award-winning Captain Hook in the Broadway musical Peter Pan, plays Gray's dance partner. Charles Laughton makes a memorable film debut as a nightclub patron who complains about a dirty dish, setting in motion the club owner's first meeting with Shosho. And Ray Milland can be glimpsed as another nightclub patron.

Piccadilly received excellent reviews, most of them praising Wong's performance. But more and more films were being made with sound, and a few months after Piccadilly's premiere, a version with a sound prologue and synchronized score was released. Even so, Piccadilly was not widely seen. It disappeared for more than 70 years, until the British Film Institute restored it in 2003.

Wong became the toast of London, and starred in a play with a young Laurence Olivier, and another film in Germany, before returning to the U.S. in late 1930. For the next several years, Wong made films in Europe as well as the U.S., but she never again had a role as good as the one in Piccadilly. Her last film appearance was as Lana Turner's maid in Portrait in Black (1960). Dupont followed Piccadilly with his first talkie, Atlantic (1929), made in both English and German versions. He returned to Hollywood in 1932, but made mostly "b" pictures. Unable to get work after being fired from a film in 1939 for slapping one of the Dead End Kids who had made fun of his accent, Dupont returned to journalism, then worked at a series of jobs, making only an occasional film or television program until his death in 1956.

Director: E.A. Dupont
Producer: E.A. Dupont
Screenplay: Arnold Bennett
Cinematography: Werner Brandes
Editor: J.W. McConaughty
Art Direction: Alfred Junge
Cast: Gilda Gray (Mabel Greenfield), Jameson Thomas (Valentine Wilmot), Anna May Wong (Shosho), Cyril Ritchard (Victor Smiles), King Ho Chang (Jim), Hannah Jones (Bessie), Charles Laughton (Night Club Patron).

by Margarita Landazuri



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