Shanghai Express - 1932
Shanghai Express - Released Feb 12, 1932. Directed by Josef von Sternberg
Shanghai Express is a gorgeous film shot by Josef von Sternberg (and cinematographers Lee Garmes and James Wong Howe) and starring Marlene Dietrich and Clive Brook. It gives Anna May Wong and Warner Oland significant screen time.
The story is in the Hollywood "omnibus" format in which the passengers on a train in China have interrelated stories culminating in a climax impacting everyones fortunes (but principally the love life of the two main stars).
The Yahoo article by Maureen Lee Lenker points out this is a good presentation of Anna May Wong in a role where she is not a "dragonlady." For many it might be their first introduction to the movie actress as it is one of her most high profile films and (too bad) there are not that many in her resume. She's very good, and though she has nothing like the number of lines or screen time as star Marlene Dietrich, she competes for attention very effectively whenever she appears in the story, even if Dietrich is right there and has all the lines.
Dietrich and Clive Brooks are often fairly stiff in Shanghai Express in the mode of 1932 acting, by contrast Wong (and Eugene Pallete as a wheeling-and-dealing American conman/salesman) seem practically natural in how they do their roles.
But this is a Sternberg film and the visual poetry of his cinema sometimes packages his main actors into something almost like immobile emotional statues, as if he is placing them in the scene to fit a visual presentation instead of an emotional one.
The movie is full of beautiful black, white and grey scenes, and the story is shown to us in a romantic Hollywood version of early 20th century China, the tale about a yearning phantasy of lost-and-regained love, adventure, revenge, some pretty good humor and a lot of very different people having to get along with each other (and mostly achieving it).
This film seems to be divided by having two different natures, one being that it is an early 1930s "talkie," but it is also somehow a kind of advanced silent film implementing techniques and technology from 1932 as if The Jazz Singer had never happened.
As far as the "talkie" Shanghai Express goes, the dialogue and love story is not too unusual for a 1932 film. It features the tale of of two former lovers (Clive Brooks and Marlene Dietrich) who meet unexpectedly again aboard a crowded cross-country train trying to make its way across war-torn China. The dialogue is straight-forward and isn't very subtle. Each character regrets their earlier parting, and Dietrich's acting in these scenes often amounts to rolling her eyes and waving her hands in a strange facile manner that doesn't always synch with the dialogue. Brooks is mostly petulant throughout the movie, a British officer and doctor who is regularly swearing "by Confucius" about something. Despite their arguments and his "lack of faith" we know the two stars are going to have to eventually eat their bitter words against each other and get over their rift if the end-title credits are to ever be seen.
Meanwhile, while the love story goes through its paces, Director Sternberg guides us through an exotic, polished, imaginary grey-scale world where bandits, armies, peasants, warlords and side-stories abound in a diminished omnibus structure that features secondary characters played by Anna May Wong, Warner Orland, Lawrence Grant and Louis Hale.
Sternberg wants us to be as interested (well, almost as interested) in Marlene Dietrich's Marilyn aka Shanghai Lily as we are in Shanghai Express' white-painted train, the farm animals that get miniature spotlight moments, electric fans, the blowing fur on Marlene's elaborate overcoat, and the turmoil of the characters trying to sort out the situation as the famous prostitute (called a "coaster" in this story) Shanghai Lily has to take matters in hand to save lives when a warlord takes the train hostage (Anna May Wong provides a timely assist that 'settles the hash" of their kidnapper, as Eugene Pallete puts it).
One of the side-stories in Shanghai Express is how the always disapproving passenger Reverend Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), discovers Shanghai Lily and Hui Fei (Anna May Wong) are aboard the train and realizes with abhorrence that the two women are prostitutes ("one is yellow, the other is white, but both their souls are rotten!") But later Rev. Carmichael becomes Shanghai Lily's only advocate among the passengers. It's not just that he can recognize what she is doing by manipulating the warlord who has apprehended the train (and thus she is saving lives) but she is praying in her desperation, and so later the minister and the prostitute recognize each other in the same moral universe (though, you might say, from opposite sides of it) while the rest of the train passengers remain self-absorbed and clueless (especially ex-boyfriend Captain 'Doc' Harvey, played by Clive Brook). The old boyfriend remains cooly angry, bitter and rather slow to catch on... but he eventually will have the blinders fall from his eyes, of course. In the meantime, Sternberg will pose Dietrich through a series of periodic solo-shots that emphasize his mastery of lighting and her cheekbones, and in this way the silent film undergarments of Shanghai Express take over, and maybe that's what the film is about all along.
From former screen legends who have faded into obscurity to new revelations about the biggest movie stars, Valderrama unearths the most fascinating little-known tales from the birth of Hollywood through its Golden Age.
Winner of the 2020 Peter C. Rollins Book Award
Longlisted for the 2020 Moving Image Book Award by the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation
Named a 2019 Richard Wall Memorial Award Finalist by the Theatre Library Association
Original Page February 9, 2017