Piccadilly [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (18th June 2021).
The Film

"Piccadilly" (1929)

Valentine Wilmot (played by Jameson Thomas) is an owner of a glamorous nightclub and restaurant in Piccadilly Circus where the main attraction is Mabel Greenfield (played by Gilda Gray). a dancer of great agility and flair, alongside her dance partner Victor Smiles (played Cyril Ritchard). But Victor is leaving for America to make his break on Broadway, leaving Mabel without a dance partner, and Valentine without a positive outlook for his establishment. It is one night that he happens to go to the kitchen area and sees a female dishwasher dancing exotically on the table to the grins of other kitchen staff. Shosho (played by Anna May Wong) is a Chinese immigrant, with scratched leggings and living on the brink of poverty, but Valentine sees an opportunity to cast her as a star performer to bring new life and business, which causes a rift between him and the more established Mabel.

Produced by British International Pictures in 1929, the British film felt closer to a German production. Director EW Dupont, cinematographer Werner Brandes, production designer Alfred Junge were established German filmmakers. The central setpiece of the nightclub with its large stage, orchestral pit, and numerous tables and chairs for suited patrons were reminiscent of large scale German silent productions of the decade. The setting however was in London, where bright lights of the nighttime atmosphere of Piccadilly Circus came to life in an exaggerated form in this melodrama. "Piccadily" was written by Arnold Bennett who had a fairly short career as a writer for film, but was a famed writer, with 34 novels and countless short stories for newspapers and magazines to his credit. The story itself is not a hugely groundbreaking work, relying on melodramatic conventions with love triangles, personal and professional jealously, greed, and desire. What does make it stand apart is the dealing of race relations and also having a cast of non-white actors in pivotal roles. At a time when blackface and yellowface was still embarrassingly acceptable, it is fresh to see the role of Shosho played by the undeniably gorgeous and exotic Anna May Wong as well as the character of Jim played by King Hou Chang. In addition there are background actors such as at the lower class nightclub in which blacks, whites, and others are dancing and drinking together, as well as the scene of Valentine walking through a slightly shady Chinese restaurant, with the roles played by appropriate actors and extras and not in unconvincing makeup.

The Chinese American Wong was achieving success in American in film, with works such as "Peter Pan" (1924) and "The Thief of Bagdad", but started to grow weary of the typecast supporting roles, and set off to Europe for a change in direction. Her first work there was on "Piccadilly", in which she was not credited at the top, but was definitely the lead in the amount of screentime and the impact she left with the character of Shosho. Her rags to riches story is one that brings smiles, as she is given an opportunity of a lifetime, from being a poor girl who can't afford to buy new clothes or stockings, to then performing her original song and dance to a crowded audience with exotic costumes in solo form. But it's not just the dance scenes that make the character stick with the audiences, however alluring they may be at times. Her timid and nervous smiles as the immigrant poor girl who just wanted to dance for fun, and later transformation into a more confident woman is like that of the countlessly retold story of "A Star Is Born", and like that story, "Piccadilly" also is one of tragedy through the jealousy of success, though the relationships are more complex here.

There is the love story aspect of the dance partners of Mabel and Victor, but it is implied that Valentine also has his eyes on Mabel as well for some time. As for Shosho, Valentine certainly has feelings for her, but this causes distress from Shosho's boyfriend and musician Jim who feels that he is getting left behind with her sudden popularity. The characters each have their impulses and their pride, but it is the story of Shosho and Jim that takes the largest focus, with Jim noticing some of the smaller lies that Shosho is telling him, such as how she said she lost the small Buddah statue he gave her, only for him to find it on Valentine's desk. Hearts are broken through the business and no one in the film gets out truly clean with happiness. The price of fame is an ugly one, and "Piccadilly" has a story that may not be anything entirely new, but is one that still rings true almost a century later.

The silent film was first released in February of 1929 in the UK, but as the American cinema market was transitioning from silent to talkies in 1929, "Piccadilly" was not considered an easy sell for the market in which the public was flocking to new films with synchronized soundtracks and actors speaking their lines. For this, a five minute prologue was shot, which was not the events before the film's opening, but events after the film, with Valentine speaking to a customer and explaining the story of "Piccadilly".

"Piccadilly" had both positive and negative reviews on its initial release and reception was lukewarm with no major awards given, but in later years had become a landmark in British silent cinema with its characters, direction, and the cultural and class divides seen in the story. In 2003, the BFI restored the film and gave it a new release theatrically and on DVD with a newly composed score by Neil Brand. The film was painstakingly restored using multiple elements, intertitles were reconstructed, and color tinting was done for the appropriate timings. The 2003 restoration is now available to be seen in HD on this Blu-ray edition from the BFI, giving it a new transfer and a new life for another round for rediscovery.

Note this is a region B Blu-ray

Video

The BFI presents the film in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio in 1080p AVC MPEG-4. The BFI's restoration of the film was completed in 2003 which produced a restored 35mm duplicate negative in black and white. The restored version was reconstructed through various elements, in which the best materials were used for the reconstruction, including the reconstruction of intertitles. The DVD which the BFI issued shortly after looked fairly good for its time, but there still were issues to be said. Rounded corners, flickering, visible damage, color tint fluctuation, etc. For this Blu-ray edition, the restored edition was given a new digital restoration, improving aspects all around. The film looks much more stable in still shots, color tint fluctuation has been minimized, damage marks have also been reduced overall. Granted there are still issues with damage still being visible on certain sequences like tramlines and speckles, but some shots look fantastic without a mark of damage to be found. Depth, detail, and focus are all strong, as deep blacks are crisp and paler shades look excellent as well. Rounded corners are gone, having the image stabilized within the 1.33:1 frame. Overall, it looks absolutely great.

There are two versions available for viewing on the disc. The restored silent version and an option to view the added sound prologue for the talkie market in America. The "talkie version" only had the prologue with dialogue, while the rest of the film featured a synchronized music track with added foley effects. The soundtrack to the talkie version is not available here, with the sound version branching into the restored silent version. The prologue is in a much worse condition than the rest of the film, with telecine wobble, blown out whites, scratches and speckles visible.

The restored silent version runs 109:06 while the restored silent version with the sound prologue runs 114:22.

Audio

Music LPCM 2.0 stereo (score by Neil Brand)
The music score which was composed by Neil Brand for the 2003 restoration is presented here in uncompressed stereo. For the score, Brand gave it a jazzy feel reminiscent of the 1930s and 1940s which does make things anachronistic considering the film was made and takes place in the 1920s, but it still certainly sounds and feels fitting with the environment. The seven piece orchestra goes from up tempo swing to harder bebop to sexy cabaret style tracks, which all sound excellent in this score. In the booklet, Brand looks back at the score nearly two decades later with some interesting insights as well as some last minute panics with the timing being completely thrown off with a change in the framerate.

There are English Intertitles for the main feature.

The "sound" version with the sound prologue unfortunately doesn't have English subtitles for the short five minute sequence, as the sound is quite crackly, as the sound and visual elements were not as well preserved. The dialogue is still fairly fine, without too much distortion while the characters are speaking.

Extras

"Prologue to Piccadilly" (5:25)
The US talkie prologue can also be seen on its own here in the extras. As noted above, the print is wobbly and scratchy, the audio is hissy and crackly. It makes no difference to the plot of the film itself but thankfully preserved here for curiosity.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English LPCM 2.0 without subtitles

"Return to Piccadilly" featurette with Bryony Dixon (17:23)
The BFI's Bryony Dixon gives some of her insights into the film, as she discusses information on the various cast and crew and the making of the film. Sequences from the film play during the appropriate times.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in English LPCM 2.0 without subtitles

"Talk of the Town" featurette with Jasper Sharp (53:17)
This lengthy interview with critic Jasper Sharp has him discuss about Wong's career and life, from her pioneering roles, her frequent on screen deaths, her relationship with Josef von Sternberg, controversies and much more.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English LPCM 2.0 without subtitles

"Scoring Piccadilly" featurette with Neil Brand (19:55)
In this vintage audio interview with composer Neil Brand, he talks about the scoring process, with visual cues for the music, deciding to update the tone rather than sticking to the time period, and examples of the plot affecting the score's tone. During this interview, there are clips of the restored film that play. These are clips from the Blu-ray's transfer, rather than a recycling of the older BFI DVD transfer, for which the interview was previously available on.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English LPCM 2.0 without subtitles

"Cosmopolitan London" 1924 short (9:55)
This vintage documentary short looks at a very international of London, as the cameras are pointed at various shops, homes, and people of all races and ethnicities, which looks and feels very different from the image of London people would have at the time. The intertitles included are not exactly PC, with some terms and phrases that sound a bit out of character with the inclusiveness the images seem to show. The short includes a score by composer John Sweeney from 2012, which was originally composed for the BFI's DVD release of the short films compilation "Wonderful London".
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, Music LPCM 2.0 with English Intertitles

Image Gallery (5:14)
An automated slideshow gallery of behind the scenes stills, promotional stills and poster art, along with the score by Neil Brand as background.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, Music LPCM 2.0

Booklet
A 28 page booklet is included in the first pressing. First is the essay "Piccadilly and the Birth of the London Noir" by BFI silent film curator Bryony Dixon, which looks at the making and the release of the film and the people involved. There is also "Looking Back at the Score" by composer Neil Brand in a newly written piece recalling the making of the score. "EA Dupont's International Film" is a short piece by Ian Christie on the restored film. There are also full film credits, special features information, transfer information, acknowledgements, and stills.

Embedded below is a clip from the Blu-ray release, courtesy of the BFI.

Overall

"Piccadilly" is an undeniable classic of British silent cinema that has only gotten better with age, with a timeless story of fame and tragedy, with a powerhouse performance by Anna May Wong who steals the spotlight. The BFI's Blu-ray has an excellent transfer in video and audio of the restored version, with a very good selection of extras. Highly recommended.

The Film: A- Video: A- Audio: A Extras: B+ Overall: A-

 


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