Monday, July 27, 2009

Piccadilly (1929): Pabst out-Pabsted... and a new old look for the Phoenix

London sucks, as everyone who lives here knows.
But at least my particular corner of it has more than its fair share of attached film history.
Within walking distance was the home and studio of the great British pioneer R W Paul (1869-1943), who shot much of his work on the streets of my neighbourhood, and filmed re-enactments of the Boer War on nearby Muswell Hill golf course.
Just up the road from him, his colleague and rival Birt Acres (1854-1918) - the two made the first ever British film together but parted acrimoniously - gave the first ever public exhibition of projected film in Britain in 1896, one month before the Lumière Brothers.
Meanwhile, nearby Highgate Cemetery plays final host not only to creepy, crappy old Karl Marx but also to the far more worthy William Friese-Green.
There is a degree of controversy as to the true extent of Friese-Green's legacy, but he was certainly a hugely important figure, generally credited with inventing the cinematograph and being the first man to ever see moving pictures on a screen, as well as an innovator who contributed to the invention of colour and stereoscopic film. (Sadly, his inventions did not make his fortune: spiralling overheads plunged him into bankruptcy. After a spell in a debtor's prison he lived out his life in obscurity and poverty; he collapsed and died immediately after rising to his feet and spouting gibberish at a meeting of film entrepreneurs in London in 1921.)
What else? Well, from 1911 the production company The British and Colonial Kinematograph Company were based just around the corner from me, shooting their films in and around a customised house, somewhat in the manner of Hammer at Bray studios.
Then, finally, there is my local cinema. The Phoenix, as it is now known, was built as the Premier Electric Theatre in 1910 and has been here ever since, making it Britain's oldest constantly-operational purpose-built cinema.
The only problem with the Phoenix is the bland, spit and hardboard foyer, and, by and large, the choice of films. There are some rep screenings, but an awful lot of new pseudo-arty/quasi-indie/would be-non-mainstream drek. Just the fact that it isn't Spiderman isn't enough to make it good, you know.
Ah, well. Whether this may change in the future is a moot question - partly because they have an audience suggestions book in which several people have requested more repertory (and one person repeatedly asks for Charles Bronson movies), and partly because it has just been awarded a grant to cover its full restoration to glowing thirties splendour.

How often do you get the chance to see a silent film in an auditorium where it may well have been shown on its first run? For that I'll forgive the Phoenix anything, even its bizarre habit of inviting Ken Loach over for a Q&A session every time he's got some rotten new film to hawk. "Why are you such a humourless old fraud?", "If you could only obliterate Britain or America which would you choose and why?" and "Can you give me the address of your hairdresser?" are just some of the questions he doesn't get asked at these events.

Ah, but. Piccadilly. A revelation on the big screen, and a strong contender for my favourite silent film of all time, accompanied live, as usual, by Stephen Horne, the only man I've ever seen play a piano and a flute at the same time while watching a film in the dark.
Piccadilly is steeped in the atmosphere of twenties London - as charming and evocative as the American Jazz Age, but very different - and dazzlingly designed and photographed, mainly by imported co-production Germans. It is vivid, and intense, in a manner rarely associated with British films.
The closest comparison would be with Pabst: there is much of Pandora's Box here; but it's even better.
Anna May Wong as Shosho should be as iconic and widely-celebrated as Brooks's Lulu and I honestly don't know why she is not. She is as captivating as Louise, as luminously photographed, and fully as modern in her light, naturalistic acting style. (Also giving a quiet little lesson in screen acting is Charles Laughton, in a short featured cameo as a bad-tempered diner.)

It's a film that has to be seen on a big screen: the BFI's DVD is certainly gorgeous (but for Neil Brand's horrid new score), but the detail - especially of the Piccadilly Club itself - is lost on tv. This is a film that truly overwhelms you, in composition, lighting, performance, and in sheer style.

(Thanks to Silver Strands for the screen shots.)


Gloria said...

This film makes me think on how foreign contributions are vital to any "national" cinematography. In the case of British movies, there are names intimately associated with them which are from foreign origins, take for instance, the Kordas, Emeric Pressburger or Anton Walbrook.

And indeed E.A. Dupondt. I got the DVD (for reasons you'll easily guess) and was awed: as you say, Anna May Wong seduces the viewer from the moment we see her dancing, with broken stockings, in the club's scullery. You're right that she should be better known, there's screen power there to equal Brooks, Garbo or Dietrich.

My favourite character in the film, though, is Wong's chinese friend: he looks like a scowling, eastern version of Mickey Rooney. The moment when he sourly poses with Wong's stage dress is priceless.

I also liked the imaginative way the film's credits are presented, the mobile, dancing camera (and I really mean "dancing", not histerically shaky as in modern films).

Of course, I love Laughton's Groszian (Callow dixit) cameo, and you can nearly hear his French accent. Incidentally, although short, his role is relevant to the film, as his complaint is the one that leads the club's propietor (and teh public, to discover the marvels hidden in the scullery.

As an anecdote, Ray Milland was among the mass of tailcoat-donning patrons of the club (not that I noticed him, but he mentions the fact in his autobiography, so I'll believe him)

Matthew Coniam said...

Absolutely. Brilliant opening titles, and great ending too, with the guy buying the paper, seeing the headline, and then saying he's won money on a horse and the men go by with the 'Life Goes On' adverts.
I guess Charles has what is called a 'featured cameo'. Although the part is small it is important, as you say, and also very prominently billed in the opening credits.
It just shows what an amazing actor the man was: for as long as he's on he steals the film, yet all he's doing is complaining about a plate... even this he does in absolutely his own way, imaginative acting and absolutely 'real' in its effect.

That guy does look like Mickey Rooney!
But again as you say, another really good performance. Very good also when she's reading her first review and he comes in with her breakfast on a tray, and she puts the newspaper over his head.

Gloria said...

...or should we say that Michey Rooney looks like King Hou Chang? ;D

It's fascinating to compare their very similar features, one serving a perpetual, nearly plastic Broadway smile, the other a permanently settled" harumph": it speaks tons of Jim's situation as a foreigner, much as does Shosho's ambition.

This makes all the more extraordinary the scene you mention: Jim, for once, smiles dreamily, and for this very bit one wishes he wouldn't end like he does in the movie.

Lolita said...

Great post! Entertaining as usual.
Funny, I found this post of your while googling on information and photos of Anna May Wong! I just published a post on her, check it out! And to answer your thought about Anna May not being as celebrated as Brooks' Lulu, I guess the answer lies in the contemporary time. Anna May Wong wasn't Caucasian, something that stood in the way of her career all through her life. But she WAS celebrated for her performance (read the Variety comment: "From the moment Miss Wong dances in the kitchen's rear, she steals 'Piccadilly' from Miss Gray."), but she seemed more forgotten by the later public that Lulu was. Let's change that.

Avalon76 said...

The more I hear (and see!) of this film, the more I must get it. Gorgeous.

Jen from Silent Stanzas ^_^

Matthew Coniam said...

Yes do - it really is exceptional.

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