Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
The most remarkable yet inscrutable scene in EA Dupont’s 1929 film Piccadilly: in an East End dance hall a smiling couple dance together; he is black and she is white. In a decade when, so the vitriolic headlines of tabloid newspapers would have us believe, mixed-race relationships drew nothing but ire and anxiety, this is something different. Few of those around them seem to register this as anything out of the ordinary. Yet the landlord intrudes. Physically interposing himself between the couple he is further empowered by his own mockney intertitle: “Yer know that’s not allowed in my place–dancing with a white girl. Get out!”
For once, however, I think we see the racial hostilities of the 1920s being resisted. While the young woman is initially cowed, she quickly fights back, standing up to the landlord and asserting her own impassioned response to his orders. Dupont does not give the woman an intertitle of her own — that is what makes the scene so inscrutable. Still, in the silence that follows we might hear those alternative understandings of mixed-race relationships that historians of the period have only just begun to trace.