- The Washington Times - Friday, March 11, 2005

Art-house distributor Milestone Films re- cently released a DVD edition of “Piccadilly,” the second of three movies directed in England at the close of the 1920s by the once-prestigious German director Ewald Andre Dupont. The release evidently was prompted by an acclaimed revival at the New York Film Festival two years ago.

Guess you had to be there.

The career of Mr. Dupont (1891-1956) peaked in 1925 with an Emil Jannings vehicle, “Variety,” a romantic triangle with a circus background that drew on the dexterous and subjective camera methods F.W. Murnau had made fashionable the year before in “The Last Laugh.”

At one time, Mr. Dupont’s reputation shared the creative luster that still is justly associated with Murnau and Fritz Lang. At this late date, Mr. Dupont suggests a needy case. Before and after his British interlude, he struggled to make headway in Hollywood. Stylistic hardening of the arteries must have contributed to the enveloping stuffiness of “Piccadilly,” which fails to sustain the obligatory erotic tension about a triangle at a fashionable London nightclub, also called Piccadilly.

At first glance, the club appears to be a pretty splashy watering hole. Two curved staircases join floors that are packed with customers in evening dress. An immediate credibility problem arises when the headlining dance team of Mabel and Victor, played by Gilda Gray and Cyril Ritchard (a generation before he was Captain Hook to Mary Martin’s Peter Pan), lurch into an act that seems expressly designed to showcase their heavy-footed amateurism.

Legend has it that Miss Gray first popularized the “shimmy,” and I guess her swinging-gate hip movements and absurdly busy arms are authentic features of that wiggly specialty. Her ability to beguile, alas, no longer meets the eye. On the contrary, you’re puzzled about the need for a double staircase if there’s no one capable of going up and down in attractive patterns, as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers would in “Swing Time” several years later.

When the impresario, Valentine Wilmot, a beautifully tailored and peerlessly phlegmatic figurehead as embodied by Jameson Thomas, is shown scrutinizing the floor show, you think he must have replacements in mind. But no, Mabel, it turns out, is his steady.

The plot insists on cultivating a new protegee, Anna May Wong as a scullery maid called Shosho, observed swaying in her own impromptu shimmy for the dishwashing staff. Wilmot gets an eyeful of this audition when he sets out to investigate a dirty plate returned by a customer played by Charles Laughton, making his feature-film debut in a dyspeptic bit role.

The dread shimmier slowly catches on to the possibility that Wilmot is grooming Shosho as a rival — although the newcomer’s first (and only) performance, as a pseudo-Balinese divinity, is as preposterous as the hoofing of Mabel and Victor.

Thomas looks like such a dignified stiff that any semblance of incendiary desire is far-fetched. Not until the denouement, which is then contradicted by an alternate summing up, advanced during an inquest, does Miss Wong get to suggest even faintly seductive tendencies. For the most part, she’s easier to accept as a cute kid sister than as a ticking sex bomb.

It’s amazing to see the name of a famous English novelist in the credits: Arnold Bennett. Did he actually contribute such an inert scenario and pallid set of characters to the beckoning cinema? “Piccadilly” must have one of the slowest fuses ever contrived for a would-be explosive romantic triangle. The movie’s sedentary consistency defies belief. Usually, a change of scene will provide some spark to a faltering plot. “Piccadilly” just continues to drone, to the bitter end.

The movie’s proximity to the irreversible talkie transition evidently was grounds for last-minute tinkering. The supplementary material in the DVD includes a five-minute prologue with recorded dialogue. Thomas is one of the principals, by way of setting up a flashback structure. It’s not clear if this afterthought was meant as minimal enhancement to the silent version or the prelude to a complete talkie replacement.

A new musical score commissioned from Neil Brand is so monotonous and obtrusive that a vintage soundtrack would be merciful, if only for the insertion of sound effects and the use of dance music corresponding to the Jazz Age setting.

I’m afraid “Piccadilly” is not looking or sounding its best 75 years later.

*

TITLE: “Piccadilly”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Made in 1929, decades before the advent of a rating system; fleeting violence and sensuality)

CREDITS: Directed by Ewald Andre Dupont. Screenplay by Arnold Bennett. Cinematography by Werner Brandes. Production design by Alfred Junge. Musical score for DVD edition by Neil Brand.

RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes

DVD EDITION: Milestone Films

WEBSITE: www.milestone films.comMAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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