German director E.A. Dupont was one of the world’s most celebrated filmmakers when he came to London, by way of Hollywood, for the swan song of silent cinema. A visually eloquent and sometimes dazzling backstage melodrama, Piccadilly is a variant on Dupont’s German masterpiece Variety (1925) and his first British film, Moulin Rouge (1928). Released in 1929, Piccadilly similarly maneuvers a mobile camera around a splendid set to track a tawdry showbiz sexual triangle: The pomaded proprietor of the deco nightspot Club Piccadilly (Jameson Thomas) dumps his star jazz baby (Gilda Gray) to pursue a younger performer, the lithe slum goddess Shosho (Anna May Wong), first seen entertaining her fellow scullions with a dreamily sensuous tabletop dance.
Although Gray is the movie’s nominal star, and Charles Laughton has a memorable cameo as a swinish club customer, Piccadilly is stolen by Wong, a Chinese American product of Hollywood High, whose movie career was initially boosted and then quickly stymied by racial prejudice. (Remembered mainly as Marlene Dietrich’s glamorous, if taciturn, sidekick in Shanghai Express, Wong is poised for rediscovery—the subject of an unreleased documentary, three new biographies, and an upcoming MOMA retrospective.) Her hair bobbed and banged in the manner of contemporary expatriate and sister femme fatale Louise Brooks, Wong exudes a similarly cool, appraising sexuality. She shimmers and so does this newly restored, alternately blue- and amber-tinted, print. The lone NYFF screening will be accompanied by Neil Brand’s new score, performed by a seven-piece ensemble.