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When Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express chugs out of Peking, squeezing
through a teeming alleyway as it picks up steam, it marks the start of a
momentous journey not only for its motley of passengers but for Hollywood.
In this fourth teaming of the Svengali-like director and his Trilby of a
star Marlene Dietrich they reach the zenith of their legendary
collaboration and strike a template for the kind of movies America would do
best and like best: voluptuous hybrids of adventure and intrigue, romance
and raffish fun.
Leaving for Shanghai to operate on the stricken British Consul-General, army physician Clive Brook climbs aboard only to find the woman he loved but lost five years ago (Dietrich). Now, however, she goes by another appellation; as she explains, in the script's most emblematic line, `It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.' Her presence on the train, and that of one of her sisters-in-sin (Anna May Wong) is cause for scandal and indignation among the other passengers: prim boarding-house proprietress Louise Closser Hale (with her pooch Waffles smuggled on board); sputtering man of the cloth Lawrence Grant; sardonic gambling man Eugene Pallette; a Frenchman; a German; and the inscrutable, pre-Charlie Chan Warner Oland.
Soon, China being embroiled in a civil war, they have more to worry about than Dietrich's morals. Rebel troops halt the journey lead the passengers, one by one, to be interrogated by their warlord, who turns out to be Oland. The various eccentricities, secrets and agendas of the passengers get brought into the open, affording Oland opportunity to avenge any number of racial and personal slights. But finally he finds what he's been looking for a valuable hostage to serve as a bargaining chip in Brook. And from then on Shanghai Express becomes a drama of reckoning, with all the characters scheming to save their own (and occasionally one anothers') skins.
None of the players can be faulted, except for Brook, who gives a dead-earnest impersonation of the stick that stirs the fire; that Dietrich should have fallen for him is like believing several impossible things before breakfast. (Cary Grant was around in 1932; too bad Sternberg didn't catch up with him until his next movie, Blonde Venus.) But in his handling of Dietrich, Sternberg all but patents what came to be called star treatment. Stunningly lighted, her feline face is caught in a breathtaking range of moods and attitudes. But she's more than a passive vessel for the director's intentions her blend of worldly savvy and steely spine is hers and hers alone.
She isn't the only beneficiary of Sternberg's eye. He shoots the movie in a haunting, intense chiaroscuro (few movies from this early in the 1930s were so richly and handsomely photographed). He cuts from scene to scene teasingly, layering new shots on fading images, adding a little rubato to relate incidents of the story to one another. Shanghai Express may be the first masterpiece of the sound era, one that's still no less extraordinary today than it was 70 years ago.
Shanghai Express is another von Sternberg masterpiece, probably not
appreciated in his day (no academy awards) and lesser known that it should
be in this day. Film theory says this film was an attempt to shade degrees
of blackness. At one point, Marlene Dietrich's face blooms like a white
flower out of the shadows, then closes again.
Beautiful is not a big enough word enough to describe the cinematography in Shanghai Express. The plot is dreamlike and unrealistic (Sternberg hated realism), the costumes are excessive (impossible to contain in Dietrich's supposed luggage), the atmosphere is deliciously layered with decadence, exoticism (good part for Anna Mae Wong) and deterioration (broken walls, slats and fantasies), punctuated by von Sternberg's caprice (chickens wandering in front of the train -- a symbol of Dietrich's husband's profession as a chicken farmer?).
The storyline is basically a broken romance seeking to be healed between Clive Brook and Dietrich or "Shanghai Lily," the naughty lady who has sold her body the past few years to keep herself in glittery costumes and furs.
The real "story" is "Dietrich and von Sternberg visit China" on some movie lot, on their way from or to Russia (The Scarlet Empress), Spain (The Devil is a Woman), North Africa (Morocco), or somewhere in the U.S. (Blonde Venus).
Gorgeous and lots of fun!
Nine first-class passengers board a train to travel the 3-day
from Peiping, China, to Shanghai. Nine souls with widely
varying backgrounds & uncertain futures. For they are
traveling into countryside racked by civil war and one of
number may not be all he seems. What dangers await & who
will survive the journey on the SHANGHAI EXPRESS?
Marlene Dietrich is mysteriously beautiful as Shanghai Lilly, a `coaster' (a woman living by her wits on the coast of China) whom all men - and most viewers- find fascinating. Clive Brook, a silent film star little remembered now, is very effective as the British Army doctor who was once Lilly's lover. Anna May Wong plays an exotic Chinese prostitute who is used to taking care of herself.
The supporting cast is equally good: Warner Oland as a sly Eurasian; Eugene Pallette as a jovial American gambler; Lawrence Grant as a grumpy old English missionary; Gustav von Seyffertitz as an invalid German with a dangerous secret; Emile Chautard as an elderly French Major with a hidden past; and wonderful old Louise Closser Hale as a feisty American widow who runs `the best boarding house in Shanghai.'
Paramount put a lot of money into this pre-Production Code adventure drama, which has an exciting plot, good acting & plenty of romance. The Peiping scenes, with the crowded tenements squeezing right down to the very railroad tracks, are especially well done.
Many consider "The Shanghai Express" the best von Sternberg/ Dietrich film. Perhaps. I certainly agree that it is a very good movie. The story is a bit trivial: two lovers meet again after five years. They were separated due to the lack of faith he had in her. This film is a journey. In fact, two kinds of journeys: a physical one, since the set is a moving train, and a psychological one, since during this journey Captain Harvey (Clive Brook) gains fate, essential to a love relationship. The train movements seem to indicate the attraction Captain Harvey and Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich) feel for each other. This movie gives us one of the most beautiful images in movie history: Dietrich in the dark, smoking a cigarette, with the famous light that gave her that famous "butterfly shadow".
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Despite a difficult, artistic personality, Joseph Von Sternberg was a
deep romantic. While Marlene Dietrich showed in a long career that she
had vast reservoirs of talent, Von Sternberg gave her career a lift in
that series of films they made together from THE BLUE ANGEL to THE
DEVIL IS A WOMAN. Remarkably, given the limitations of black and white
film, Von Sternberg left some beautiful images (to this day) of the
actress who may have been the most beautiful one in motion picture
SHANGHAI EXPRESS is set in the China of the Warlord period (as was THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN). A group of travelers are leaving a Chinese city to reach Shanghai, before the railway link is cut by the troops of the warlord. They include Dietrich, Anna May Wong (her best recalled talkie performance, as the bride to be Hui Fei), Clive Brook, Lawrence Grant, Eugene Palette, Warner Oland, Louise Closser Hale, Gustav Von Seyfertitz, and Emil Chautaud. Each has a distinct personality, which sometimes clashes with the others. Dietrich was formerly the fiancé of Brook, an English officer and gentleman, but he dumped her and she has become a high class prostitute. Grant is a holy roller minister, who is disgusted at the acceptance of that prostitute by some of the passengers. Palette (my favorite character in the film - his role is like a comic afterthought) is an even tempered gambler who is returning to Shanghai to look after some properties he has there. He has no problems accepting Dietrich at all. Also, he sees no problem with the use of racist comments (for that locale) as, "I wouldn't give him a Chinaman's chance!", which fits his gambler's instinct. Hale is the owner of a boarding house in Shanghai, who is friendly at first until she realizes what Dietrich does for a living (devilish Dietrich then asks Hale, in pretended shock, "What kind of a house do you run?", much to Hale's annoyance). Seyfertitz is a silent, really abrasive type, who wants to be left alone (it's interesting in the comments about racism towards Chinese in this film, few comment about Seyfertitz and his role and how it dovetails with residual anger towards Germans in the wake of World War I). Brook is going to another post, and is shocked at how Dietrich has ended as she has - but he can't help feeling some of the romantic feelings of five years before. Chautaud is headed to meeting his sister, whom he has not seen in years, and who expects him to be a great military hero. And Oland is a half Chinese half White passenger, who is not the quiet businessman he seems.
The train is stopped by the forces of the local warlord, whom everyone meets. Each is handled differently, as their secrets are wormed out of them. The best confrontation is the warlord and Seyfertitz, who learns a serious lesson in manners. But events soon turn about, due to an unexpected party, and move on to the satisfactory climax. I won't mention the details because this is a film that I think should be seen by everyone, for it's evocation of a China that is now somewhat lost (with it's teaming throngs of people pushing their ways to their destinations). China still has a really large population, but I don't think the disorder that Von Sternberg captures in his railroad stations scenes still exists. As a picture of the lost China of 1930, as a fascinating character study of over six characters, and as another romantic view of La Marlene, SHANGHAI EXPRESS remains a great film.
Over the decades I've managed to see nearly all of the films Sternberg
directed and I've always considered that this one was his best work. It
was pre Hays Code Paramount for starters, with a marvellous cast and an
unusual and simple story full of romance and action gripping to the
end. It was also lovingly photographed from beginning to end, everyone
and everything gleaming in a by turns savage and erotic dreamlike
During the Chinese Civil War and travelling on the Peiping-Shanghai Express ("where time and life have no meaning") are a disparate band of Westerners plus a couple of enigmatic natives all sadly lacking in moral fibre except Clive Brooks who has too much of it. This makes him less of a human being, along with the rest of them. He's still in love with Marlene Dietrich whom he ditched 5 years and 4 weeks before thus unwittingly turning her into Shanghai Lily the notorious coaster - a woman living on the coast of China by her "wits" which is a bit of a serious problem to the upright Britisher even though she still loves him. Warner Oland plays a fundamentalist Chinaman with secrets and ashamed to have white blood in his veins while Eugene Palette is a gambling mad American capitalist. Inscrutable and sullen Anna May Wong is Dietrich's companion in vice, and 4 other international eccentrics make up the passenger list we're interested in. Favourite bits: Wong's dramatic announcement of her consummated revenge; the iconic image of Dietrich smoking in the dark; the all-too believable chaotic scenes of civil warfare. The interplay between the main characters is occasionally laboured but always fascinating and always thought provoking - there's plenty going on so attention is recommended! The only thing that gets in the way of this being an absolute masterpiece is Brooks' lousy stilted acting style entertaining in its own way to study the forgotten technique, but it's often jarring in its unconvincingness.
An early talkie classic, mesmerising even after all these years.
One of Marlene Dietrich's most popular films from her early period with
Joseph Von Sternberg was Shanghai Express. In fact her portrayal of the
notorious Shanghai Lily is the main reason for watching this film
Set in Kuomintang China, the film concentrates on a group of train passengers making a journey from Peking to Shanghai. These are the white passengers all heading for their extraterritorial enclaves on the China coast and a couple of richer Chinese. One of them is Warner Oland who is a seemingly respectable Chinese merchant, but actually a notorious warlord leader a group that Chiang Kai-Shek has sworn to exterminate. In fact during this period his government was doing just that.
Oland is best known for playing Chinese detective Charlie Chan, but he's not dispensing fortune cookie wisdom here. He's a most menacing figure who when he's revealed holds all the lives of the passengers in his hands. The other Oriental in this group is well to do prostitute Anna May Wong. She and Dietrich find themselves kindred spirits and are shunned by the other passengers.
It's a reunion of sorts for Dietrich, another of the passengers is Clive Brook a British army doctor who is on his way to China to perform a delicate operation on a big shot. He and Dietrich were once involved, but when he dumped her, she took the road that made her the notorious Shanghai Lily.
The main weakness of Shanghai Express in fact is Brook. He's such a cold fish drip of a man, I can't see how Dietrich and he could ever have been involved. The film would work a lot better if the role had been cast with someone of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr's charm. Still Brook proves the old flame hasn't quite died down and in fact it hasn't for Marlene either.
Other characters on the train are Lawrence Grant as a reverend Davidson type missionary, Louise Closser Hale as an old American dowager, Emile Chautard as a disgraced French Army officer, Gustave Von Seyfertitz as a hypocritical opium dealer, and Eugene Palette as a crass American businessman as only Eugene Palette can play them. They provide quite a cross section of the western powers who were nibbling on the Chinese body politic at the time.
Shanghai Express won an Oscar for Cinematography and was in the running for Best Picture that year, losing to Grand Hotel which has a lot of similarities to this film. Dietrich is unforgettable as Shanghai Lily and this is a must for her fans.
Always enjoy films from the 1930's and especially this one, which stars Marlene Dietrich,(Shanghai Lily),"Touch of Evil",'58, who looks very young and trim and plays a woman who has been around the block quite a few times. Lily is still in love with a long lost lover and she once again gets involved with him on the "Shanghai Express", along with quite a few other characters on the mysterious train ride. Warner Oland,(Mr. Henry Chang), a great veteran actor who performed in many "Charlie Chan Films in the 1930's, gave a great supporting role along with another veteran actor, Eugene Palette(Sam Salt),"The Cheaters",'45. If you love an excellently produced Classic Film, this is the film for YOU!!
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!!
Certainly one of the greatest films yet made (even I still have hope there will be more!), not least for the beautifully restrained performance of Clive Brook. Apparently the depiction of nobility and restraint is lost on modern audiences. Not a surprise, since these qualities seem to be almost entirely lost to modern society! OK, off the soapbox. This is one of the most moving stories ever depicted on film (compare, too, with Nicholas Ray's "In a Lonely Place," which tells a similar tale of misunderstandings that destroy a deep love -- without the happy ending that is so welcome in "Shanghai Express.") All the supporting players brilliantly portray their variously flawed characters, and the direction is simply breathtaking. Note, for instance, the multi-layered dissolves in the opening sequence. A stunning film -- I think it the best of the seven magnificent Sternberg-Dietrich collaborations. (This is the fourth, and, perhaps significantly, it was made after Sternberg took a break from Dietrich with his "American Tragedy." Did Sternberg realize how much he missed having her... and was he inspired beyond all measure? So it would seem. This and the succeeding three films, "Blonde Venus," "The Scarlet Empress," and "The Devil is a Woman" make anything else from the period -- from any period -- pale by comparison.)
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