Saturday, April 16, 2011

‘Piccadilly’: Not a Backstage Musical

To say that German director E.A. DuPont’s British film Piccadilly (1929) is not a backstage musical carries a ring of the obvious. Piccadilly is clearly not a backstage musical, nor a musical of any kind — it’s a freakin’ silent movie, for Pete’s sake! Movie musicals came about because of the technological advancement of sound on film. Pointlessness would abound if a movie were to perform music and singing unheard by the audience. So, why bother putting the title Piccadilly and the phrase “backstage musical” in the same sentence? Because this particular movie subgenre throws a bright spotlight on this particular silent film.

What is Piccadilly’s story? Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas, best known for playing Claudette Colbert’s jilted fiancĂ© in It Happened One Night) is the owner of a London nightclub whose star attraction is the dancing team of Mabel Greenfield (Gilda Grey) and Vic Smiles (Cyril Ritchard). Wilmot and Mabel are a couple, but Vic keeps making passes at her, which she rebuffs. One night at the club, during a performance by Mabel and Vic, a diner (Charles Laughton in a cameo) causes a commotion over a dirty plate. Investigating the cause himself, Wilmot inspects the club’s scullery and finds its workers watching another worker, a “Chinese girl” named Shosho (the captivating Anna May Wong), dancing atop a table. Angry over his workers lounging on the job, Wilmot sacks Shosho and gives the others a stern warning. Later, Wilmot discovers Vic trying to ravish Mabel, so he fires Vic as well. With Vic no longer in the act, the club’s profits plunge, so Wilmot thinks of a new attraction. Wilmot sends for Shosho and gets the idea of having her perform a “Chinese” dance at the club. When Mabel hears of this, she feels threatened, not only for her career but also because Wilmot seems to be growing more attracted to the increasingly assertive Shosho. Once timid around Jim (King Ho Chang), a Chinese man who lives in her block of flats in Limehouse (London’s Chinatown), Shosho begins bossing him around. Shosho is a hit as a dancer, and the club’s profits are back up. Mabel quarrels with Wilmot, and the two split up. A free man, Wilmot takes his new star attraction out on the town, but interracial couples are frowned upon, so Shosho takes Wilmot back to her flat and seduces him. Mabel has been shadowing them all this time — with a gun in her handbag. After Wilmot leaves Shosho, Mabel confronts her, and an alarmed Shosho catches sight of the gun. In the confusion that follows, Mabel passes out. When she recovers, she finds Shosho shot to death. Due to circumstantial evidence, Wilmot is put on trial for Shosho’s murder. But in the court’s mortuary, dying from a self-inflicted wound and saying that he and Shosho “belonged together,” Jim confesses to killing her.

If a filmmaker ever remade Piccadilly, I don’t think the story would stay intact. Why? The entire movie is motivated by the assumption — an illation which seems to permeate every frame — that racial mixing is a bad thing. To modern eyes, Piccadilly stands as a beautifully photographed cautionary tale against miscegenation and little more. As its story gets underway, the film carries a sense of foreboding that Wilmot, a white man, is beginning a downward trajectory when he leaves Mabel and takes up with Shosho. And after the first act, Shosho, an Asian woman, is portrayed as predatory towards Wilmot. The interracial couple is presumed to be a surefire magnet for tragedy. Nowadays, when movies with white male leads and Asian female love interests are practically a subgenre of their own (see the book Romance and the “Yellow Peril” by Gina Marchetti), Piccadilly appears as dated as a warning about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons.

Of course, such a racist presumption shouldn’t be unexpected from a film that predates World War II and the civil-rights era. After all, this was a time of presumed white supremacism. This was a time when, for example, several films and stories told of miserable Eurasian characters whose lives were redeemed when they discovered that they were completely Caucasian after all (films such as Shame [1921] and Son of the Gods [1930]). In fact, virtually all of Anna May Wong’s most prominent roles were in films cautioning against the intermingling of the white and the “Oriental.” So, the fact that Piccadilly is yet another monitory movie touting sexual segregation — from an era in which sexual segregation was the norm — is nothing to write home about. Still, the film’s pejorative view of racial mixing also informs other aspects of the story and gives a tragic cast to situations that would be unproblematic today. And present-day eyes may view the film as an unnecessarily downbeat spin on what might otherwise be a story with a happy ending: Piccadilly is a frustrated backstage musical.

Piccadilly includes two dance numbers in its plot: Mabel and Vic’s jazzy jitterbug and Shosho’s hip-swaying pantomime, both floor shows for the nightclub. (Of course, since the film is silent, they aren’t really “numbers.”)  When Piccadilly was first released in February 1929, the movie musical wasn’t yet fully formed; the emerging genre was still in its experimental stages. So, the movie’s contemporary audiences wouldn’t have seen it in reference to musicals as an established kind of film. The idea of Piccadilly as a “frustrated backstage musical” is one that could only occur in retrospect. Also, the film is missing some important hallmarks of that particular subgenre. In her book The Hollywood Musical, Jane Feuer says that the plot of the typical backstage musical is about a romantic couple working behind the scenes of a stage production, and the ultimate success of the show analogizes the coming-together of the couple as committed romantic partners. So, since it doesn’t include any scenes of the rehearsals for either floor show, Piccadilly doesn’t meet this requirement of the subgenre either. However, the film makes use of one story trope most associated with the backstage musical: the tyro performer who gets her big break and becomes a stage star.

Sawyer, you listen to me, and you listen hard. Two hundred people, two hundred jobs, two hundred thousand dollars, five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend upon you. It's the lives of all these people who've worked with you. You’ve got to go on, and you’ve got to give and give and give. They’ve got to like you. Got to. Do you understand? You can’t fall down. You can’t because your future’s in it, my future and everything all of us have is staked on you. All right, now I’m through, but you keep your feet on the ground and your head on those shoulders of yours and go out. And, Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!

So goes the speech that Warner Baxter, as the show’s director, gives to Ruby Keeler, as the star-in-the-making, just before she goes on the stage. The scene is from 42nd Street (1933), perhaps the most prototypical of the showgirl-to-star backstage musicals. However, it’s a speech that Piccadilly’s Wilmot could have just as well given Shosho on the opening night of her dance. And Shosho does indeed become the success that Wilmot needs her to be, professionally eclipsing the club’s temperamental erstwhile star, Mabel, no less. The present-day viewer can imagine an alternate version of the tragic story, a version where the enthusiastic applause that Shosho elicits marks the hoped-for revival of the nightclub’s fortunes. And as the metaphorical curtain falls on Shosho’s and Wilmot’s triumph, the camera can fade out on a happy ending.

But Anna May Wong isn’t Ruby Keeler. In The Hollywood Musical, Feuer writes that the newly minted stage star “need not come from Iowa ... but she must have her roots in the provinces” — that means the white provinces. She need not come from Iowa, but she can’t come from Limehouse.

Also in her book, Feuer makes the distinction between “folk” culture, “popular” culture, and “mass” culture — each term marking a different relationship between performer and audience — and how they inform the genre of the musical. Folk culture means that there is no real difference between the performer and the audience: a community (however small) is singing to itself (a campfire song is one example), perhaps with the members taking turns. Popular culture is where the community separates itself into professional performers entertaining a live audience: a stage show, for instance. Mass culture is at a further remove because the performance isn’t live: such as films and recordings. The movie musical is itself an example of mass culture but sees its remoteness from the live audience as a potential for alienation. According to Feuer, the classical musical bridges its remove from the live audience and holds alienation at bay by privileging live performance, musical numbers that evoke folk culture and popular culture in order to distract from the film as a form of mass culture. Songs and dances performed in the story by regular folks (actually played by professional entertainers) and that bring a group or community together are one way that the movie musical tries to present itself as a form of folk culture. In musicals about professional entertainers, the genre extends the notion of a “folk” community to the live audiences within the films.

Feuer’s distinction is important because it signals what kinds of performances are valued by popular cinema and what kinds are not. Musical numbers that include the community (such as the live audience) are preferred to those that do not. For example, it explains why there are many musicals about professional entertainers who are stage performers but virtually no musicals about cinema performers. (Singin’ in the Rain [1952] is something of an exception to this, but it still does much to emphasize the live audience, and only one of its numbers is sung in the film within the film.)

Using Feuer’s distinctions, Piccadilly shows its preference to Mabel and Vic’s dance over Shosho’s. During their jazzy duet, the camera moves with the dancers and includes the audience in the frame. While it would be an exaggeration to say that they are involved in the dance, the mostly happy, mostly toe-tapping spectators create a celebratory environment, and Mabel and Vic’s jaunty jitterbug feels like an extension of that cheerful environment, reinforced by the camera’s swishing pan of the exuberant jazz musicians providing the music for their movements. As Feuer might say, Piccadilly presents Mabel and Vic’s dance as a kind of “folk” performance.

But Shosho’s pantomime dance is presented in another key entirely. Shosho performs a more solemn dance, relying more on arm and hip movements. She wears what the film says is an “authentic” Chinese costume, but it looks more like she’s wearing a Cambodian mokot on her head and an abbreviated, shoulder-horned breastplate above her bare legs, apparently an eroticized variation of a traditional Cambodian/Thai dance costume and not anything remotely Chinese. In contrast to the elaborate tracking camera movements that follow Mabel and Vic, the camera movements following Shosho’s dance are minimal panning shots. And most of the camera compositions are medium close-ups or full-body shots of Shosho and do not include the audience with her in the frame. But in those long shots that do show both her and the audience in the same frame, the space emphasizes the distance between the performer and the spectators, who watch her with frozen expressions on their unsmiling faces. Instead of a merry jazz band, Shosho is accompanied by a stone-faced group of Asian musicians (including Jim) performing on traditional Asian instruments and photographed with an unmoving camera. And the rotating mirror balls surrounding Shosho throw spots of light on the stock-still witnesses, as though the beams held back the audience. The pair of audience members who exchange unheard words about Shosho are an effete-looking man and a beefy, short-haired, monocled woman who smokes.

Where Mabel and Vic’s dance brings a microcosmic community together, Shosho’s dance reinforces the distance between performer and audience. Where Mabel and Vic impart joy to the nightclub patrons (except the quarrelsome diner Laughton), Shosho holds them silently rapt. Where Mabel and Vic’s most conspicuous audience members invite identification by the film viewers, Shosho’s most conspicuous audience members suggest an alienating gender ambiguity. While Mabel and Vic’s dance may be seen as a kind of uniting “folk” performance, Shosho’s stressed ethnic otherness portends the breakdown of the folk, of the ethnically “homogenous” community. Mabel and Vic’s performance prefigures the celebratory production numbers in the emergent musical genre, but Shosho’s dance is portrayed as an ominous intrusion into what musical production numbers usually celebrate: the unifying of a community. Seen from a modern-day distance, Shosho’s dance might have been every bit as celebratory and community-building as Mabel and Vic’s, but Piccadilly doesn’t present her pantomime that way. Why not? Because Shosho is the wrong race.

Since Piccadilly denies Shosho and her dance the positive connotations that the musicals to come would bestow upon their performers and performances (and indeed that Piccadilly presciently bestows upon Mabel and Vic’s dance), the 21st-century viewer may perceive this silent film’s absence of synchronous sound and music as a further denial of the positive associations of the classical musical genre, such as the upbeat characters and happily-ever-after endings of examples like 42nd Street and Singin’ in the Rain. To modern eyes and ears, Piccadilly’s muteness consigns Shosho to an aphonic realm of tragedy, a forcibly hushed domain of gloom and doom that the audible genre of the musical — with its inclusiveness, its communalism, and its sheer musicality — might have countered.

And if the viewer takes Feuer’s distinctions between “folk,” “popular,” and “mass” cultures to heart, one might even view Piccadilly’s pejorative portrayal of Shosho’s dance as an adulteration of its positive potential. The flashy accoutrements of the dance — its Orientalist trappings, its glinting set, the relatively vast space between Shosho and her audience, her laughably non-Chinese “Chinese” costume — come across as unnecessary and estranging add-ons to a performance with greater possibilities for connection, as superfluous distancing devices to attract a paying audience. In this way, the negative associations of Shosho’s floor show may be seen as a capitalist corruption of the one true “folk” performance in the film: Shosho’s table-top dance for her fellow scullery workers.

Shosho’s dance in Piccadilly

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Film Noir, Part Two

Not too long ago, I heard Bruce Springsteen’s haunting rendition of the old song-book standard “Angel Eyes,” and it stayed with me. While the song is best remember as sung by Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra, accompanied by a lush orchestra, Springsteen stripped the song down. His voice barely escaping through clenched teeth, seething into the microphone and backed only by a solo acoustic guitar, Springsteen conveyed the wrecked spirit of a man devastated by the mysterious absence of his love. Springsteen took a song usually associated with sophistication and laid bare the narrator’s incomprehension, his vulnerability, and his sense of being utterly alone.

In other words, Springsteen’s version of “Angel Eyes” did to a familiar standard what film noir did to studio-era Hollywood: take an entity associated with glamour and twist it to reveal the darkness within.