Pre Code Confidential #19: Marlene Dietrich in SHANGHAI EXPRESS (Paramount 1932)

Marlene Dietrich is TCM’S Star of the Month for May, and “Shanghai Express” airs tonight at 12:00 midnight EST. 

A train ride from Peking to Shanghai is fraught with danger and romance in Josef von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS, a whirlwind of a movie starring that Teutonic whirlwind herself, Marlene Dietrich. This was the fourth of their seven collaborations together, and their biggest hit, nominated for three Oscars and winning for Lee Garmes’s striking black and white cinematography.

The Director and his Muse

Dietrich became a huge sensation as the sultry seductress Lola Lola in Sternberg’s 1930 German film THE BLUE ANGEL, and the pair headed to America to work for Paramount. Marlene became the autocratic director’s muse, as he molded her screen image into a glamorous object of lust and desire. Sternberg’s Expressionistic painting of light and shadows, aided by Dietrich’s innate sexuality, turned the former chorus girl and cabaret singer into the ultimate icon of forbidden lust, an exotic carnal creature that rocked audiences all over the world. Just watch her in SHANGHAI EXPRESS, or any of their films together for that matter: Marlene just oozes sex out of every pore!

Here she plays Shanghai Lily, a notorious “coaster” (read: prostitute) travelling with her equally exotic companion Hui Lei (the amazing Anna May Wong). Also on board is British Captain Doc Henry (Clive Brook), whose heart was broken by Lil when she was known as Madeline, before her life of ill-repute (“It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily”, she purrs). There are others on that train: American gambler Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette ), snooty Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale), opium dealer Baum (Gustav von Seffertitz), French Major Lenard (Emile Chautard), pious Reverend Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), and the mysterious Eurasian Henry Wong (Warner Oland), who is in reality leader of the revolutionary Army.

The train is stopped by government forces and a high-ranking rebel is taken into custody. In reprisal, Chang wires ahead, and his men overtake the train. All are questioned by the warlord, and Baum, who insulted Chang earlier, is branded with a hot iron for his insolence. Doc, who’s on his way to operate on Shanghai’s Governor General, is taken hostage to facilitate an exchange for Chang’s officer. The lusty Chang sets his sights on Lily, offering to take her to his hideout, but Doc steps in and decks him, causing Chang to release her and drag her friend Hui into his makeshift headquarters (the implication is Chang rapes her).

Not one to suffer an insult gladly, Chang refuses to release Doc when his man is returned, at least not until he has been blinded. Lily sacrifices her freedom by agreeing to go with Chang, bravely telling Doc it’s of her own free will so he’ll depart. Hui creeps her way through Sternberg’s shadow-world and gets her revenge by stabbing Chang to death, allowing Doc to free Lily, still not knowing she did it for his sake. It takes the sanctimonious Carmichael, who observed Lily praying for Doc’s safety earlier, to uncover the truth, and the former lovers start anew in their quest for happiness.

The supporting cast is excellent, especially Pallette and Oland (“You’re in China, where time and life have no value”). Anna May Wong, a star in her own right since the silent era, is a quiet balance to Dietrich’s more flamboyant Lily, and the two fallen angels (Carmichael describes them as “One is yellow, one is white, but both their souls are rotten”) make quite an enticing pair. The only performance I didn’t care for was Clive Brook’s “stiff upper lip” acting as Doc, but that has more to do with me than Brook himself, who was a popular star in the early 30’s. Familiar Face spotters will have to look fast for the uncredited Forrester Harvey and Willie Fung .

Jules Furthman’s  screenplay is loaded with double entendres and pithy lines, which Dietrich delivers in her signature sensuous style. SHANGHAI EXPRESS, with its outlandish look, noirish shadowplay, and erotic subject matter, is a near-perfect film, and a good starting point for those of you unfamiliar with the provocative Pre-Code wonders of Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg.

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