Shanghai Express (1932)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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,

and now go see which Pre-Code Karen picked for you to watch.

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20 thoughts on “Shanghai Express (1932)”

  1. Good write up. It’s such an atmospheric piece with von Sternberg and Garmes spinning wonderful webs of intrigue behind the camera, and Dietrich radiating allure on the other side. Brook damned near derails the whole thing though with one of the stiffest wooden performances around.

    1. Yes I have to say I can never see what in the world she even wants with him, he’s so cold and wooden as you say. Fits the character, but still. Dietrich and Wong are marvelous here, you can’t take your eyes off them. Iconic images throughout. Thanks!

  2. I don’t agree about Clive Brook. If you know von Sternberg’s style as expressed through actors, he is the ideal von Sternberg interpreter in this film. At least I think so and know all von Sternberg’s movies and have thought a lot about him. At the time of SHANGHAI EXPRESS, he was arguably the most masterly director going.

    I did enjoy this review in any event and would love for you to write on more of his films. If you haven’t seen MOROCCO yet, check it out, Kristina. Another awesome movie,

  3. I only had a few minutes to write that comment before, but reading it back it seems to me I should explain a little more what I meant.

    There is an acting style in von Sternberg’s movies, which, like everything else about them, is very stylized. The characters all basically pose, with a kind of aloofness beneath which there are worlds of emotion that they seem to suppress but which we are made aware of in subtle ways. In keeping with this, dialogue is delivered in a flat way, but because there is genuine emotion behind the words, the inflection within that flatness has an ironic quality. It also points the way to the concern with pride and ego that every von Sternberg character has. It is, I believe, very interesting and very effective too. The performances that you justly admire by Dietrich and Wong are also done in this way–and it’s true of all the others as well, but of course they are all different people so it comes over differently with each one. It’s a very disciplined way of playing and takes real skill, and I think Brook was exemplary here (von Sternberg had used him well earlier in UNDERWORLD but that was a silent–dialogue in sound films did not change the director’s approach but added a level). But I appreciate no one is going to think so if they don’t think this is all very deliberate and there is a good reason for it.

    And that’s my main point. Von Sternberg is sometimes seen as in some way superficial for all the visual beauty of his style. Nothing could be further from the truth–he is deeply engaged with relationships and human emotion, and everything about his style is directed toward his way of illuminating those things, which at best is profoundly insightful, but he is just as deeply concerned with the individually artistic way he has found for their expression.

    1. That’s really interesting, thanks very much for taking the time to elaborate on the background and on your views, enjoyed reading this. I enjoy Brook in other things and appreciated that his cold, weary, contained, reserved style fit for this character and story. I just couldn’t warm to him (until the end when he accepts her, finally) when he was so quick to assume the worst of her, and then hold even firmer to his old image of her (which was probably just what guided her down the right path, come to think of it), and to his disdain/rejection, even when faced with the reverend’s changed view and attempt to persuade him otherwise. I think she says of him earlier that he needs facts or truth to have faith, and that’s how he acts, won’t believe in her without a reason. His stubbornness seemed to come more from scientific disregard for religion and his own hurt feelings, not only from misunderstanding her gesture to save him, but also because he tried to have faith in her earlier (telegram scene) and was wrong. So to me it felt like an imbalance, she’s going far out of her way yet he’s making it more about him, in the acting her facade is cracking, showing her true feelings, where from him I didn’t get as clear a sign or similar moment. I have seen Morocco, but like this one (and many Dietrichs), saw it probably 15+ yrs ago, hardly remember and could really do a rewatch. Thanks again, and for the compliments, love to read comments like this that add to my viewing knowledge.

      1. Just to add for what it’s worth, I think your analysis of the character Brook plays is absolutely right, and if one considers that, then surely his performance is just the way it ideally ought to be, so that further supports my point.

        I don’t think we are supposed to find him endearing until the end. It’s Dietrich’s character who will rightly draw our empathy, but love is love and this relationship does makes sense. And after all, he does come around in the end.

        1. Everything that you, or anyone takes the time to comment on here is worth a lot to me, I always welcome opinions like this that add to my viewing and help understand it better!

  4. It seems like you almost always pick something that I’ve never seen before — I love it! I will definitely be checking this out. I’ve only heard of Shanghai Lily — you know, about it taking more than one man to change her name — and I don’t think I’ve ever seen Anna May Wong in a movie (only stills of her). I’m really looking forward to this. Great pick!

    1. If you’re a Dietrich fan at all, I think fair to say a must-see. Definitely she was at her peak in looks and style (as Brook tells her in this movie) and I just find her fascinating to watch. Interested to hear your opinions on it when you see it. Thanks! I wonder which will be the movie we both pick one month 🙂

  5. Thank you for an entertaining look at this fabulous film! It has not only a great cast but a storyline with “everything but the bloodhounds yappin’ at her rear end!” 🙂 And yes, poor Clive was stuck with a bit of a wooden role, paired with von Sternberg’s directing style. Few character traits are as offputting as galloping judgmentalism, and he had that in spades!! Thanks again for this!!

    1. I remembered how impressive it is visually and of course Marlene strikes some of her iconic poses in this, have one on my wall in fact. But I’d forgotten how much more there was in character and writing. Thanks for reading!

  6. Not sure why I have never seen this one as I am generally fascinated by Dietrich during her Era with Sternberg for both the images caught on film and of course the trivia and productions from behind the camera. Nicely done and enjoyed the banter with Blake as well.

    1. Thanks, it’s been awhile since I watched this and many Dietrichs, I went through them when I first got into classics so it’s nice to revisit.

  7. Man, I cannot believe I still haven’t seen this! I mean, Marlene Dietrich and Eugene Pallette in the same movie?! It sounds wonderful with lots of atmosphere, like you said.

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