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 <email@example.com>
Comments in the AFI Catalogue suggest the credits were changed when re-released in 1935. According to the Catalogue, the original print referred to Harry Herveys work as a novel. In the viewed print on TCM, the onscreen credit was "story." The print was clearly a re-released print because of the PCA certificate number listed onscreen; such numbers were not issued until 1934. It is not known what other changes were made, if any, but the print ran only 82 minutes, suggesting some additional editing had been done. See more »
I have a soft spot in my heart for movies about trains and about other modes of transportation as well, but there's something very special about a train when it is properly handled for the cinema. I could go through a very long list of films featuring trains that I love and that were produced over a long span of time, but I won't, and you'll thank me for that. I've added this gem to the top of that list, or at least near the top.
Despite the fact that the entire film is produced in either a Hollywood lot or a train depot in San Bernardino, I feel that I am in China during very turbulent and dangerous times. Thanks to the special skills of director Josef von Sternberg, the prevailing sense of impending peril is very strong. Warner Oland, although not even half Chinese, is very convincing as the menacing rebel leader. The rest of the cast is excellent as well. Both Dietrich and Brook project an outward appearance of stiffness and toughness to the dangerous world around them, but we learn along the hazardous and uncertain journey that their exterior façade is nothing but a thin disguise, and there lies a very vulnerable humanity deep within both of them. Dietrich gives another one of her many fascinating performances, full of psychological complexity. I love her.
I don't understand all of the harsh criticism of Clive Brook among the user reviews here that he is too wooden and mechanical. That is exactly the way he was supposed to play the role of a military doctor living in a world full of danger and of extreme hostility that is specifically aimed at him and his uniform. If we watch him closely, we will observe the decent, compassionate man behind the uniform. I thought that Dietrich and Brook make a smashing couple, especially when their outward and superficial veneer crumbles before our very eyes. This is good stuff!
The beautiful and mysterious Ana May Wong also provides complexity and depth to her deceiving, outward impression as Lily's courtesan companion, Hui Fei. Again, we must not judge Hui Fei based on her exterior demeanor alone because deep within her lies a very brave and determined dedication to her country and to her society. Her exchanges with Mrs. Hegarty (Louise Closser Hale), the prim and proper boarding house owner, are most entertaining. I'm usually not focused on hairdos, but check these out, especially Hegarty's. Holy mackerel.
As you will see, none of the characters are what they seem to be at first glance. That is only part of what intrigues me about this movie. Please don't miss this extraordinary train, which only leaves the station on rare occasions. If you don't appreciate the ride as much as I do, you can always get off when the next cow decides to wander into its path but, considering the danger lurking in every direction, you will probably be safer on it than off it. Be forewarned and sit tight until the end. You won't be disappointed.
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