In the 1929 silent film Piccadilly, Shosho, a Chinese kitchen maid works at an upmarket Piccadilly club, and attracts the owner’s attention with her hypnotic dancing. He promotes her from the kitchen to become the club’s star attraction — but emotions spiral out of control with disastrous consequences.
Piccadilly deals with tricky social issues, but refrains from sentimentality, judgement, or pretension. Everything, from the acting performances, to the camera work and the London locations gives the film a natural, sometimes documentary-like quality. The result is a film that feels strangely alive, and ahead of its time. It comes across with the impact of a contemporary story rather than a dated document from a bygone age. It’s worth remembering that this was released in 1929: two years after Metropolis, and seven years after Nosferatu.
The acting performances mostly eschew overblown theatrics (the type associated with silent cinema) for a more realistic style. The story is thematically eclectic: the fable of the pauper turned into a princess, in the vein of Cinderella; the manufactured star, similar to A Star is Born; the social taboo of interracial love, much like Pocahontas; a murder mystery; and a courtroom drama. It’s surprising that Piccadilly conveys such an open and honest view (for its time) of race and class. Perhaps it was the German director’s, Ewald Dupont’s, outsider’s view of the English? Also, the emotionally restrained observation of sexual jealousy has more of the subtle literary angle about it than an alarmist parable. The key thing here is that the characters feel like people rather than one-dimensional stereotypes. The film presents itself as ‘a slice of life’, a vignette of bohemian London, where there are two separate worlds of Piccadilly meet — one wealthy and the other working-class. The lines between the rich and poor are sharply observed, not just between the affluent and working-class but the intricate graduations of social hierarchy. When a customer complains about a dirty plate, there’s a whole succession of staff who must be approached, one by one, each one passing the complaint further down the class hierarchy.
The night out in a pub takes the aristocratic Valentine Wilmot out of his familiar surroundings (his Piccadilly), so that he can escape unwanted attention, into Shosho’s Piccadilly. It’s only here that he can secretly socialise with her. But racial permissiveness only goes so far in 1920s London. In a rowdy pub a black man is thrown outside for dancing with a white woman. This reminds the audience of the risky, socially taboo nature of Valentine’s relationship with Shosho. On the street, outside the pub, black men chat with white women. The woman who was thrown out moments before recognises Valentine and Shosho and makes a big deal of respectfully allowing them to pass — recognising them as one of their own.
Shosho is many things — part Cinderella, part opportunistic business woman, an erotic ‘object’ of curiosity, and an idealised romantic female fused with Eastern exoticism. But she’s always depicted as strong, intelligent, and romantically open-hearted. Valentine’s wife clearly objects to Shosho, not because she’s Chinese, but because she’s a rival female vying for her husband’s attention — but her jealously is ironic considering that she’s been openly having an affair. Perhaps she’s envious of Shosho’s successful dancing act, or concerned about her reputation, because Valentine is seeing a working-class woman? Either way, her emotions and drives are ambiguous and complicated. Although this is the Jazz Age, where ‘anything goes’, and the characters inhabit the entertainment world of Piccadilly, an area then known for prostitution — this is 1920s London and there are limits to what is socially acceptable.
Shosho’s mesmerising dancing recalls the odd dance moves that the robot Maria performs in Metropolis. There’s a tradition in storytelling of men being seduced, turned into virtual slaves by a woman’s dancing. This scenario goes back as far as the biblical story of Samson and Delila. And like that story this is another love between two different ‘tribes’. Valentine and Shosho’s affair is the ‘forbidden fruit’ that must be denied, much like the doomed love affair in Romeo and Juliette. Shosho is an early example of the Chinese ‘Dragon Woman’: seductive, alluring, mysterious, knows that she wants and how to get it, a direct precursor to Film Noir’s femme fatale.
So, the entertaining glitz of the night club; the excitement of Shosho’s dancing; her affair with the glamorous and decent Valentine, must give way to tragedy. Shosho is the disrupting force that upsets the balance at the outbreak of the story. She must be removed from the equation before things can return to normal. This is not the fairy tale love of Cinderella or Pocahontas — it’s a love that will be tragically denied, one way or another. Although Shosho’s demise comes about from an unlikely source, the effect is the same. This love is ‘forbidden fruit’, the apple in the Garden of Eden. The temporary escapism offered by Shosho’s mysterious exoticism exists in an all-too real world, one filled with prejudice and an ingrained class system. But instead of turning into a high-minded lecture with a stern moral warning the story is presented as a simple tragedy. The last segment — headlines splashed over a newspaper’s front-page — hammers home the point that this is just one drama in a city of a thousand stories.