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Many passengers on the Shanghai Express are more concerned that the notorious Shanghai Lil is on board than the fact that a civil war is going on that may make the trip take more than three days. The British Army doctor, Donald Harvey, knew Lil before she became a famous "coaster." A fellow passenger defines a coaster as "a woman who lives by her wits along the China coast." When Chinese guerillas stop the train, Dr. Harvey is selected as the hostage. Lil saves him, but can she make him believe that she really hasn't changed from the woman he loved five years before? Written by
Dale O'Connor <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Pretty exciting stuff--and among Marlene Dietrich's best
SHANGHAI EXPRESS is an excellent film from 1932 that stars Marlene Dietrich but also benefits from a strong ensemble cast. In other words, while Dietrich is an important part of the film, she isn't THE film and supporting actors also help to make this a good film. I like this because too often in her early films all the weight of the movie rested on how sexy and alluring Dietrich's characters were supposed to be--and to me, this got very old after a while. It helped here, though, that Dietrich's usual angular and severe looks are a bit less pronounced (as was the case in her very early Hollywood films). Here, she plays "a woman of ill-repute" (a prostitute) but there are many others that give the film life as well--making this film a bit like GRAND HOTEL on the rails! This film has the distinct honor of being one of the only films in which Warner Oland plays an Asian yet this isn't necessarily insulting to real Asian actors. That's because Oland was Swedish-born and often played Asians (such as Charlie Chan)--while qualified Asians were relegated to supporting roles! However, in this film, his character is supposed to be half-Chinese and half-Western--so the casting wasn't a bad idea at all.
Apart from Oland and Dietrich, Anna May Wong, Clive Brook, Lawrence Grant and Eugene Palette, among others, are on hand to provide some color. Ms. Wong, in particular, had some excellent scenes playing a Chinese prostitute and defender of the Chinese Republic (a strange combination, I know).
As far as Grant goes, his was a truly unusual character. His Reverend Mr. Carmichael was odd because initially he came off as such a prudish and self-righteous jerk--so much so that the studio was forced to re-write his character and soften him up some as to avoid offending religious sensibilities of the audiences. However, by changing a few scenes, they made him one of the most unusual and three-dimensional minsters portrayed in film during the era. How he came to actually like and respect Dietrich (the prostitute) may seem a bit silly to some, but I actually liked the way they re-wrote the film. As a result, of all the passengers, Grant's came off as perhaps the most interesting.
As far as the film goes, in addition to good performances, the writing, direction and cinematography were all exceptional. A top-notch film that sure will keep your interest as you follow this train through rebel territory in China.
About the only negative about the film might be that it promotes the old film cliché of "the prostitute with a heart of gold"--in fact, it has this times two! Just once, I'd like to see a film where the prostitute isn't so glamorous (perhaps with a few herpes scabs) and isn't a nice person after all!! Imagine if PRETTY WOMAN had followed THAT formula!!
7 of 8 people found this review helpful.
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