Every month, Karen of Shadows & Satin and I pick Pre-Code movies for you to watch on TCM.
Shanghai Express (1932) is a train voyage where almost every character comes out of the trip with their values and lives rearranged, or as Eugene Pallette’s character says, “tangled up like a mess of Chinese noodles.” As the train leaves the station, everyone’s gossiping about Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich) being on board. She’s none other than that notorious “coaster,” that white flower of China, destroyer of men and heavy addition to the “cargo of sin” on this voyage. One man especially surprised to learn of her presence is her former boyfriend Doc Harvey (Clive Brook). He loved and lost her long before the series of liaisons that changed her name to Lily. He still keeps a young and innocent photo of her in his pocket watch, but the image he holds of her in his mind will soon turn ugly.
All this concern about the one mysterious female distracts from the actual danger this train is in, during a civil war in China. Also on board is a revolutionary leader (Warner Oland), who will stop the train to find a passenger valuable enough to hold hostage and trade for his own captured men. When that most valuable man turns out to be Brook, Dietrich reveals she still loves him, and is willing to make a huge sacrifice to get him safely released.
This Shanghai Express has “everything but a Turkish bath” on it, but better than amenities, it has all types of characters and quality actors to play them. Pallette is the genial but carping gambler who lays poor odds on them all getting to Shanghai alive. Gustav von Seyffertitz is the invalid opium dealer whose fear of a deadly draft prevents anyone from opening windows or running the fans in the heat. Louise Closser Hale is the prim boarding house landlady whose business cards are handed back to her by Dietrich and Wong when it’s clear they would never meet her standards of respectability. Lawrence Grant is the reverend who initially is the most stereotypically judgmental, but he’ll be greatly impressed by Dietrich’s display of faith and heroic gesture. Anna May Wong is Dietrich’s stern and stunning companion, who only needs to cast a glance to speak volumes about hurt, revenge and determination. This train is crowded and claustrophobic and as stuffy from the tension between the people as it is from the lack of fresh air.
There is loads of atmosphere, from the moment the detailed Peking station set is graced with the arrival of Dietrich, sleek and mysterious in black lace, silk and feathers courtesy of designer Travis Banton. The Oscar-winning cinematography by Lee Garmes (with an uncredited James Wong Howe) richly captures contours and textures. Sheers and shades are pulled every which way as figures in silhouette attempt forbidden acts, seek secrecy and commit murder. Dietrich is ultra-glam and intense, all cheekbones and a knowing smile. Her eyes dart to and fro like pinballs at times, as if great effort is needed to maintain her facade in front of Brook, the one man who knew her “before.” But she more than makes up for mannerisms when her flippant, deceptive front finally crumbles to show genuine heartbreak at the loss of Brook’s trust and love.
Dietrich’s steps toward redemption make the Reverend reconsider and redirect his condemnation. He begs to know the decision she made after praying, and when she tells him, he admires her selflessness and unwillingness to take credit. He never shares her secret, but it fuels his scolding of Brook, Pallette and Hale for their petty prejudices and cold hearts. Dietrich helps the French officer (Emile Chautard) who’s lost his rank but wears the uniform to please his sister. It’s a small gesture to prevent disappointment and preserve the pride of a man who doesn’t have much else. Dietrich’s distress and concern for Wong leads to a fantastic scene when Wong comes back from a night spent as prisoner of Oland and his men. She’s clearly roughed up and suicidal but Dietrich is relieved to see her alive and back on board, then races after Wong and stops her from killing herself. When a jealous, humiliated Oland refuses to let Brook go without maiming and blinding him first, Dietrich is ready to bargain her future away or die in a shootout. Since saving Brook is more important to her than having his respect and gratitude, Brook remains blind about her nature until the end. As a temptress she’s used her seduction and appeal as currency, and now, at her highest value, when she sells herself for the worthiest cause, she also gets the most painful condemnation.
Director Josef von Sternberg sets up all this artifice and then lets it crack in the right places to show softer, more authentic beauty underneath. The visuals make Shanghai Express one of the best-looking train movies ever made starring one of the most interesting stars, but the writing and acting make the vehicle a streamlined pressure cooker, a bumpy journey that will expose hypocrites and allow the misunderstood to gain happiness through generosity and faith.
Watch Shanghai Express on TCM Saturday, August 22,