At the ultra-snazzy Piccadilly Club in London, where the elite meet to eat, drink and be entertained, Valentine, the club's oily manager, has a pencil-thin mustache and an eye for Mabel, the flashy dance sensation who performs with her partner, Victor, who believes she's in love with him. But Valentine made Mabel's career -- and made Mabel in the bargain. So he's already preparing to fire Victor when Victor decides to quit and go to America.
This bit of dated melodrama comes to us in the silent classic Piccadilly, directed by Ewald André Dupont, which was released in 1929 and has now been restored with crisp new images and elegant title cards. And while its cast includes three fine stage actors -- Cyril Ritchard, Charles Laughton and Ray Milland -- who would later become known in film, Piccadilly would not have returned but for the presence of Anna May Wong, the Chinese-American ingénue of the '20s who became an international phenom when she abandoned Hollywood for sophisticated Europe.
In Piccadilly, Wong plays Shosho, a Chinese girl who works in the club's kitchen. When a dirty dish turns up on the table of a demanding patron (Laughton, jowly even then, in his film debut), Valentine searches for the culprit and finds Shosho distracting her peers by dancing gaily on the job. After a long hungry look at the petite beauty, he orders her fired. But a few weeks later, he asks her to dance in his faltering club, and when she insists on wearing authentic Asian attire, they shop in London's dicey Chinese district, the Limehouse, where Shosho's earlier career as a dancer ended when two men drew knives to battle for her affection.
There are two kinds of silent movies: those that advanced the art, and those that gave audiences a good spectacle. With its banal story and modest technique -- the images are tinted, and the camera rarely moves, although when it does, it swishes and swirls impressively -- Piccadilly is certainly more the latter. To appreciate it you may have to imagine the bygone thrill of watching Wong dance in her glistening attire, or of the hint of sex and seduction that percolates beneath the surface of what we see on screen. The lovely musical score, which almost seems to mock the silliness of the plot, is jaunty, jazzy and sometimes a bit bluesy, but never bombastically symphonic, and with an undertow of piano and gentle percussion. The spare titles remind us of how easily movies can do without bad dialogue, even in the sound era.
All in all this restoration will surely be a treat for cultural historians with the scholarly desire to parse its signs and symbols -- racial jealousies play a role in the climactic love quadrangle -- and for the way it positions Wong as a coy exotic seductress who gets what she wants with almost invisible wiles.