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>
It was Josef von Sternberg's intention to have the style of the film should reflect the rhythm of a train journey. This explains the film's tight pace and the rather staccato quality of the dialogue. See more »
The telegraph forms shown on screen are filled out in Chinese and meant to be Chinese, but in fact are in English and therefore American. See more »
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 »
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!
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