From the opening credits you get to see how far ahead of its time this film was. The use of buses for stating the personnel involved in the film, was a stroke of genius. The restoration by BFI is outstanding and the film feels so fresh. What is obvious about Piccadilly is that it was made as a silent film and Dupont put all the energies into the visual side of the film. In doing so I feel that he set the standard for talkies, even though I do not think Piccadilly works as a sound film.
It seems to be a film about beautiful people (and Anna May Wong is certainly that) and there is much emphasis on the trappings of money. However. Although Ian Cristie's sleeve note suggest that the storyline is progressive, I beg to differ.
Set at a time where the social classes were more physically separated from one another, we can understand the the distance between the lives of Valentine and Shosho's background. For example when the two visit Limehouse we catch a glimpse of poorer people gathered around a brazier. We do not see their faces but we are supposed to sympathise with their poverty.
Shosho, however, is the stereotypical mysterious Oriental who deserves more than just being a scullery maid. And, as such, she is a likable character. However once she does climb the social ladder our view of her changes. She becomes scheming and nasty (this reverses the role of her and Mabel, who she usurps and who is portrayed as a spoilt rich girl at the beginning of the film). In the end, no matter how beautiful she appeared, we are left in no doubt that Shosho has it in her to be a `scheming bitch'. The role of her sidekick, Jim (who is also Chinese) also suggests that these people `should know their place', even though we are made to sympathise with him.
When we do get to see the faces of the poor they are invariable an ugly lot, either physically (as in the case of Bessie) or morally. This brings me to another opinion in the sleeve notes. there is a scene in a bar where a black man (an actual black person as opposed to a white person, blacked - up, which was the norm at the time) dancing with a white woman (and we are left in no doubt that the woman is a prostitute). Their dance is broken up by the boorish pub-owner, who is white and from the lower classes. Cristie seems to suggest that this scene shows Dupont in a progressive light. I don't think so. It suggests to me that Dupont saw the wealthy as the guardians of moral virtue who could accept a foreigner (even stereotypically) whilst those in the lower classes where either the deserving poor, huddled around a fire or boorish brutes with narrow-minded views.
This last point is something that I feel is relevant to today. The portrayal of poorer people by the media, especially the liberal media, is either of a `deserving poor' or as overweight, loud, bigots. There is another scene that touches on contemporary morality: An overweight diner (a young Charles Laughton), who is one of the wealthy patron of the Piccadilly Club, is only interested in stuffing his face rather than the two stars dancing on the floor. Again we are provided with a caricature that seems cheap, but fits in well with much of today's thinking.
Piccadilly is an outstanding film. It has a gripping story line (one that would have been suited to a later Hitchcock film), the scenes are beautifully shot and in many ways it was well ahead of its time. But it was also a product of its time, which illustrated the divide between the wealthy and the poor.
Sadly, although society has become enlightened since then, many of the prejudices, portrayed in the film, have been recently resurrected and are the common parlance of the chattering classes.