E.A. Dupont’s late silent movie is, of course, of enduring interest for the star treatment it gives Anna May Wong – a mesmerising personality who was generally not well-used in her native Hollywood and came to Europe (like Paul Robeson) because greater opportunities were afforded non-white performers in non-American film industries. Sabu was a star in 1930s British films, too. However, it’s notable that the greater opportunities still had their limits – this is one of many, many films in which (as Anna Chen has pointed out) Anna May Wong Must Die in order that her disruptive presence be exorcised and white people can get on with their drab, dreary lives without her.
A talking prologue, thuddingly shot and dully enunciated, actually takes some of the edge off this – indicating that club owner Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas) has become a burned-out shell, running a quiet country pub, since the events of Piccadilly. After this lump of stodge, the film proper begins with the dazzling display of Piccadilly Circus and credits written on the sides of buses … before we get off the real streets into an Alfred Junge nightclub set that wouldn’t be bettered until The Shanghai Gesture, where some titles faff about what kind of establishment it is (‘it’s called a club’) … it’s a restaurant with a dance floorshow, and the star attractions are dance whizz Vic Smiles (Cyrill Ritchard), who draws in a huge female crowd, and less sparkly partner Mabel (Gilda Gray), who’s the manager’s girlfriend but evidently flagging as a performer. Gray was a genuine jazz age dance sensation, known for popularising the shimmy, but we see little of her footwork – it’s hard to convey being good but not great, and she isn’t at a stage when she could be drunk and stumble or otherwise foul up.
A complaint from a glutton (an early, funny Charles Laughton bit) about a grubby plate leads Valentine to the scullery – Dupont loves tracking shots that go through crowded venues to show the struggling workers backstage or in kitchens – where Shosho (Wong) is imitating Mabel’s moves to an audience so appreciative they aren’t washing up properly. Val fires the girl, who has laddered stockings and admits the one time she danced in public in Limehouse there was trouble (‘knives, police’) – but, in a scene we crucially don’t see (it may have been cut at some point), is persuaded to take her on as a dancer when Vic quits. Shosho insists on an authentic Chinese costume, which looks more like something Princess Aura would wear on Mongo than anything else, provided by her Limehouse boyfriend/accompanist Jim (King Ko Chang), but it seems likely she becomes a dance sensation for her slinky appearance and general sex appeal rather than any actual skill. Shosho vamps her way up the showbiz ladder, memorably shutting the door on Jim with her back as she makes up to her boss – which puts Mabel on the outs romantically as well as professionally. As written, Shosho is just a vamp who gets above herself and therefore deserves to die – but Wong’s natural charisma and subtle expressiveness, plus the way contemporary viewers invest in her, make for a more complex, innately appealing character.
Screenwriter Arnold Bennett is unusually tough in his depiction of a potential interracial relationship – in another marvellous crowd scene, Val and Shosho go to a lively East End pub full of working folk who are at first more honest and likeable than the evening clothes masses of the Piccadilly … only when a white woman (Ellen Pollock) starts dancing with a Toulouse Lautrec-outfitted black man, the whole pub turns on them and Shosho covers her face. The last act is a muddle, starting with an impressionist murder in Shosho’s flat – that takes the star we’re interested in out of the picture, leaving the star it’s hard to care about to earn her top billing – and an inquest as it seems some white person might be up for taking a murder rap before poor, abused Jim owns up to the killing and shoots himself next to Shosho’s corpse. In a breathtaking bit of cynicism, we don’t get a reconciliation of Mabel and Val (who cares?) but cut to a newsstand where a punter picks up a paper with a headline that resolves the plot only to turn to the sports pages for the racing results – and sandwich men walk into shot advertising a show called Life Goes On.
The BluRay version has a great Neil Brand score.