Anna May Wong in Piccadilly

AFI Fest 2016, Egyptian Theatre

Anna May Wong was one of three female trailblazers who adorned posters and the festival catalog this year at AFI Fest. The other two were Ida Lupino and Dorothy Dandridge.

It was a homecoming for Wong, a native Angeleno who became an international star.

At the midpoint of her career, she went to England to make Piccadilly (1929). Elaine Lennon writes in Off Screen:

Released by British International Pictures in 1929, Piccadilly remains an unsung hero of early British cinema and its restoration in 2004 returned it to its rightful place in film history: an iconic piece of filmmaking from the late silent era, a triumph of cinema and spectacle boasting a great performance from legendary Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong and a masterful piece of directing by E.A. Dupont working from a screenplay by the novelist Arnold Bennett, best remembered today for his Potteries novels. BIP is probably best known now for its association with Alfred Hitchcock’s early career, especially Blackmail (1929), the first British talking picture. The company had been founded in 1927 by John Maxwell, a Scottish solicitor who acquired British National Studios and Elstree Studios and amalgamated them with his interest in ABC Cinemas. Ten years later after the purchase of Pathé, it would become Associated British Picture Corporation, in an optimistic challenge to American companies’ dominance of production, distribution and exhibition.

Made outside of the confines of the Hollywood Studios, the film confronts racial and sexual taboos.

Wong plays Shosho, a scullery maid in a London pub. Shot by expressionist cinematographer Werner Brandes, the movie follows Shosho’s rise to performer and eventual tragic fall when she becomes involved with a customer.

In Star! (1968) Julie Andrews performs “Limehouse Blues” in Asian makeup conjuring Shosho’s death scene in Piccadilly.

At the 2016 AFI Film Fest screening of Piccadillythere was a special treat. DJ Ms. 45s played the soundtrack live, nicely matching the era and mood of the movie, reprising her  performance at the Austin Film Society. 

I couldn’t find a recording of the Ms. 45s performance to post. The soundtrack on the BFI clip is annoying. Turn the sound off and use your own soundtrack.