As Above, So Below
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Stand-out British silent film following the fortunes of Anna May Wong's exotic scullery maid-turned-night club superstar
German director EA Dupont arrived in London via Hollywood (where he made one of his major silent films, Variety) and France (ditto Moulin Rouge) in 1929, as one of the world's foremost filmmakers. Just as silent films were giving way to talkies in Hollywood, he brought his technically innovative style to Britain and created one of the major works of British silent cinema.
Advanced not only in its direction and composition, the film also touches on elements of film noir with its story of a highly sexualised and exotic woman and her tragic influence on those around her. Anna May Wong had moved from Hollywood to find better roles in European cinema and stars here as Shosho, the scullery maid whose sultry tabletop dancing catches the eye of her boss, Piccadilly Club owner Valentine Wilmot (Thomas).
Elevated from maid to star dancer, Shosho invokes jealousy in fellow dancer Mabel (Gray), who is jealous not only of her popularity but also Valentine's romantic interest in her. Shosho's exotic good looks are exploited by Valentine to draw customers to his club, but are also the lure that eventually causes her downfall, like the femme fatales that would later feature prominently in noir cinema.
The London that Piccadilly evokes is a city divided between the glamorous West End and the working class East End, where Shosho lives. In a stunningly shot scene, Shosho and Valentine visit a Limehouse pub where a black man is thrown out for dancing with a white woman. Ethnicity is acceptable here but within confines decided by white Londoners. To transgress this, like the man in the pub or Shosho attracting Valentine's advances, is dangerous.
Wong's performance transcends the conservative storyline in which her character operates; Shosho is a modern free woman who leaves an indelible impression upon characters in the film and viewers alike.
A drama of sexual and racial politics set against the buzz of jazz-age London culture, Piccadilly is an incredibly modern silent film featuring a career-best performance from Anna May Wong.
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