Sunday 21 March 2010

Piccadilly. 1929. UK. Directed by E.A. Dupont. BFI DVD. Region 2.

Okay then. Second post but first post proper.

Finally got around to rewatching this very welcome Christmas present, the silent movie Piccadilly starring Gilda Gray and Anna May Wong. A tale of jealousy and murder revolving around a night club (actually a restaurant) in London. Although the actual murder only takes place about 20 minutes before the end of the movie.

This is not a bad transfer of a slightly ropey print, although it has to be said that it’s in a very much restored state here. What doesn’t need restoring is the quality of the majority of the actors and actresses performances, which are great. Every time I watch a silent movie I get stuck into that old trap of expecting overly dramatic, showy displays of acting when most of the time, and Piccadilly is an example of this, the reality is that the acting is certainly not as “stagey” as a great many of the early talkies which had started debuting a couple of years before the release of this movie.

In this incarnation of Piccadilly, the film has been tinted, as it presumably was on its first run, in alternating shades of blue, yellow and pink with the only purely black and white sequences being short flashbacks during the courtroom sequence at the end of the picture. So that’s one of the good things about this restoration.

One of the bad things is, if the quality of the original opening certification is anything to compare to, that the intertitles have so obviously been recreated and placed back in. I don’t know who’s to blame but the amount of widows and orphans in the intertitles is extremely distracting and perhaps a reduction of such occurrences may have been what the movie doctor ordered. I don’t know if these annoying typographic barbs were in the original intertitles but I’d like to think they were and that this is an attempt to recreate these exactly... otherwise someone’s got a lot of explaining to do.

Another minor gripe with what is actually a superb DVD presentation is an annoying and newly commisionned score which does no favours to the power of some of the stunning visuals in this film... being perhaps a little to bland and, dare I say it, “out of place” for a movie such as this. I think I’d possibly recommend that people who are easily distracted by such things view the movie as “purely” a silent movie and turn the volume down on their TV.

That all being said... Piccadilly is a very entertaining movie for those who value the history of film and the evocation of a certain period of time in various locales of London which it attempts to capture.

There’s a lot to like in this movie and when you first fire it up the big surprise, to this viewer anyway, is a properly designed title sequence which consists of the credits of the movie as posters on the side of trams which make their way past the camera. An innovative example of title design from an age when the medium was less associated with it than it is now. Saul Bass would have been proud.

Another thing which might surprise viewers less accustomed to watching pre-talkies is the freedom of movement with the cinematography. Like most silent films, the camera is truly liberated to move and dolly and track along and there is a strong sense of camera movement in the first dance scene highlighting one of the characters which takes on almost Scorcese-like proportions. Unlike the early talkies which were pretty much static due to the technical difficulties of having to box up the cameras so the noise from them wouldn’t impact on the recording, the silent films of the times (and especially these later ones when silent films were almost completely eradicated) were getting very creative with the language of cinema and many critics of cinema at the time were very vocal and quick in their denouncement of talking cinema as the death of the form as a creative art.

Creative too are the various interesting shot set ups and some very interesting shot transitions. There’s a very Eisensteinian moment, for example, when a shot of a small statuette of a nodding buddha is juxtaposed with a minor character nodding his head in the following shot.

And of course, Anna May Wongs vamp like sexuality alone is worth taking a peek at this DVD for.

While there is much to recommend in the BFI DVD of Piccadilly I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to novices of the silent screen (a better place to start might be The Lost World, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari or Nosferatu if you really want to get hooked) but I would certainly recommend putting it on your list if you’re familiar with the mood and tone of silent cinema and want something entertaining and worthy of study to wrap your eyes around.


  1. I'll have to look out for this one. MoMA shows a lot of silents with live musical accompaniment throughout the year, but I never go to them. Will it be another thing I'll have to get into now?

  2. Yeah. Treva... kind of an interesting movie methinks. Kind of a toned down, distant cousin to Pandora's Box in some ways.

  3. Glad you picked up on the acting in this film, much of the acting in early cinema was unfairly derided, infact, it's arguable that acting was more pleasurable to watch in those days than it is now. Agree also about the music - I did try and watch it without the sound, but oddly the silence seemed to disconnect me from the film, so i turned it back up again. On well.

    Great piece, many thanks.

  4. Hi James,

    Thanks very much. Yeah, I'm wondering how much of our perceptions of silent screen acting come from a specific genre type now. Like German Expressionism. Although, even in a movie like Singin' In The Rain which is set in 1927 but shot in 1952, they're already perceiving silent acting as "a lot of dumb show".

    Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment.

    All the best.