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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Far Out, Man!: CHEECH & CHONG’S UP IN SMOKE (Paramount 1978)

Hey Man, if you dig crude, vulgar stoner comedy… wait, what was I saying? Oh yeah, Cheech and Chong, man. These two dudes were, like, really cool dudes, and made a lot of records and stuff, and… wait, what was I saying, man? OK, so Cheech and Chong were hippie culture’s answer to Abbott & Costello , and so popular they starred in a series of doper-themed movies, the first being UP IN SMOKE, a film basically about nothing except two burnouts trying to score some weed. C&C play their familiar personas of Pedro and Man, a pair of L.A. hippies floating their way through the world in a perpetual marijuana haze. . Sure, it’s uncouth, sophomoric, and defiantly non-PC, but had me laughing out loud forty years later!

The supporting cast features Stacy Keach as Sgt. Stedenko, a super-narc trying to stamp out drug use, and he’s a straight-edge riot. Keach and his band of incompetent undercover cops (Mills Watson, Karl Johnson, Richard Beckner) are the establishment bad guys, and poor Stacy takes the brunt of much of the buffoonery.  Strother Martin and Edie Adams appear as Chong’s rich parents (“Get a God damn job!”), Tom Skerritt is Cheech’s whacked-out Vietnam vet cousin Strawberry, and Zane Busby plays Jade East, who leads the boys to a Battle of the Bands at L.A.’s famed Roxy, which they end up winning, of course! Sunset Strip scenesters like Rodney Bingenheimer and the ever delightful Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith , and Ellen Barkin, comic Gary Mule Deer, and David Nelson pop up in cameos.

C&C wrote the script (if it can be called that!), and obviously knew their audience. They riff on some of their tried-and-true routines (Cheech’s low rider, “Dave’s Not Here”, and goofing on nuns a’la “Sister Mary Elephant”), and break out Cheech’s ‘Alice Bowie’ persona at the Roxy to sing their quasi-hit “Earache My Eye”:

Music producer Lou Adler (Carole King, The Mamas & The Papas, Johnny Rivers) sat in the director’s chair for UP IN SMOKE, which probably didn’t take a lot of effort. Adler dabbled in films, and produced the seminal 1967 rock doc MONTEREY POP and THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. His only other directorial effort was 1981’s LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE FABULOUS STAINS, which has become somewhat of a cult classic. Adler was also part owner of The Roxy, and the movie has performances by punk bands Berlin Brats, The Dils, and The Whores, as well as music from War, Bobby Day, and (believe it or not) Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass..

UP IN SMOKE’s raucous dope humor opened the floodgates for stoner comedies to come. Yeah I know, there’s no redeeming social qualities whatsoever, and it’s lewd and infantile, but I don’t really care – it makes me laugh! That’s pretty much all I want out of a comedy, and Cheech and Chong deliver the goods. *sniff, sniff* hey, did somebody let a skunk in here?

SUNSET BOULEVARD (Paramount 1950): Film Noir or Hollywood Horror Story?

“I AM big. It’s the pictures that got small”

  • -Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in SUNSET BOULEVARD

I hadn’t seen Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD for quite some time until a recent rewatching. I’ve told you before how much I love a good Hollywood behind-the-scenes movie, and this one is no exception. But as I watched the tale unfold, I began to see the film in a different light. SUNSET BOULEVARD is always called a film noir classic, but this go-round found me viewing it through a lens of horror.

It’s certainly got all the elements of film noir. There’s protagonist William Holden, trapped in a bottomless downward spiral. Gloria Swanson is the femme fatale who ensnares Holden and pulls him into her dark web. The cinematography of John F. Seitz portrays a shadow-world of despair. And we’ve got Billy Wilder directing, the man behind noir masterpiece DOUBLE INDEMNITY, working from his and Charles Brackett’s extremely cynical script. All these ingredients certainly combine for a deliciously dark noir stew, right?

But there are other elements at play, horror tropes just as dark and disturbing. Swanson’s Norma Desmond, the faded silent film star, is obviously insane, driven mad by her tragic descent into obscurity and longing to claw her way back to the top of the Hollywood heap. Norma is the progenitor for all those Grand Guignol Dames to come, from Bette Davis as Baby Jane Hudson to Miriam Hopkins’ delusional Katherine Packard in SAVAGE INTRUDER . The grotesque former star plies the down on his luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (Holden) with money and material things (though the seedy scenarist is at first a willing participant), keeping him a virtual prisoner in her isolated home, shared only by her loyal servant Max, who’s not what he seems and may be a bit loony himself.

Speaking of her home, the gloomy, decrepit mansion is run-down and dusty, cluttered with cobwebs and ancient artifacts from Norma’s past. It could fit right in next door to the Femm’s residence in James Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE , or Castle Dracula itself! The horror in SUNSET BOULEVARD derives not only from that house, but from the actions of its inhabitants: Norma attempts suicide after Joe, repulsed by her demands for affection, rejects her at a New Year’s Eve party for two.  Finally, when Joe finally grows a set and tells her he’s leaving, Norma’s crack-up is complete, and she kills her jilting lover in cold blood. Her grand descent down the staircase and into a madness of no return, carefully choreographed by Max, is chillingly glorious, and worthy of any good horror movie.

Pioneering director Erich Von Stroheim as Max was no stranger to horror, having appeared in both THE CRIME OF DR. CRESPI and THE LADY AND THE MONSTER. Von Stroheim’s career took a nose dive in the talkie era due in large part to his excesses behind the camera; his 1932 QUEEN KELLY is shown during the film as Swanson watches herself, fascinated with her own onscreen image. Another fun part of the movie for me, having nothing to do with the horror aspect, is seeing silent stars of the past in small roles. Norma plays a weekly card game with Buster Keaton , Anna Q. Nilsson, and H.B. Warner, who Joe callously  calls “her waxworks”. And Cecil B. DeMille , who was instrumental in Swanson’s career, plays himself in a poignant scene while filming SAMSON AND DELILAH (Henry Wilcoxon has a cameo).

So is SUNSET BOULEVARD a film noir, a horror movie, or some kind of hybrid? Cameron Crowe, in his book of interviews with director Billy Wilder, asked whether he considered the film a black comedy, to which the maestro replied, “No, just a picture” (1). Anyway you slice it, SUNSET BOULEVARD is a bona fide classic of American cinema, a film that can be viewed on many different levels, and enjoyed on all of them.

“Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there… in the dark”

-Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in SUNSET BOULEVARD

(1) from “Conversations With Wilder” by Cameron Crowe (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999)

Lepre-Cartoon: THE WEE MEN (Paramount 1947) Complete Cartoon

THE WEE MEN is a wee bit o’blarney about Leprechauns, one of Paramount Picture’s Noveltoons series. It’s the story of Paddy, just turned 121 years old, and entrusted with the important task of leaving new shoes on doorsteps for St. Patrick’s Day… until the Greediest Man Alive captures him and demands to be taken to that fabled pot o’gold! Directed by former Disney animator Bill Tytla, enjoy THE WEE MEN (and yes, it’s in the Public Domain!):

Mad Libs: Hope & Crosby on the ROAD TO MOROCCO (Paramount 1942)

Bing Crosby and Bob Hope travel the ROAD TO MOROCCO, the third in the “Road” series and by far the funniest. The plot involves two shipwrecked Americans who wind up in an absurd Arabian Nights style adventure complete with beautiful princess Dorothy Lamour and murderous desert sheik Anthony Quinn , but you can throw all that out the window as Bing and Bob trade quips, sing, and break down the Fourth Wall to let the audience know it’s all in good fun, so sit back and enjoy the zany ride.

Bob and Bing were already established superstars when Paramount teamed them for ROAD TO SINGAPORE (1940), which was a huge box office hit and followed quickly by ROAD TO ZANZIBAR (1941). By the time they made MOROCCO, the pair had their act down pat, with Der Bingle the smooth-talking crooner who always gets the girl, and Ol’ Ski-Nose the cowardly wisecracker. Scripts were just a framework as the two hired their own gagsters to punch things up and ad-libbed madly, sometimes without even letting the rest of the cast and crew in on it. Their onscreen anarchy convulsed war-weary 1940’s filmgoers with laughter, as they skewered everything in their paths, including the hand that fed them, Paramount Pictures!

Some of their best gags are in this film: riding a camel through the desert while singing “The Road to Morocco” (“Where we’re goin’, why we’re goin’, how can we be sure/I’ll lay you 8 to 5 that we’ll meet Do-ro-thy La-mour”), Bob trying to get a free meal by acting like an idiot (not a stretch!), Bing selling Bob into slavery (which is how he ends up as Lamour’s concubine), trying to pull the old “pat-a-cake” routine on Quinn without success (he must’ve seen the previous movies!), stranded in the desert by Quinn’s army and seeing mirages, including one of Lamour where the trio sing “Moonlight Becomes You” in each others voices. The song, written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke, became a #1 hit for Bing that year, and is a standard today in The Great American Songbook:

The highlight comes when Bing and Bob attempt to rescue Lamour and handmaiden Dona Drake (who’s hot for Hope!) from Quinn’s clutches by sabotaging his party honoring a rival chieftain with whoopee cushions, a dribble glass, the old hot foot, and gunpowder-loaded cigarettes (as Crosby laces the tobacco, Hope quips “Hey, whaddaya doing, making reefers?”!!), all while being kibbitzed by a pair of talking camels! They escape for America, and all’s well that ends well, until bungling Bob goes for a smoke in the ship’s powder room and blows it to smithereens, an excuse for Hope to crack an Oscar joke to cap the shenanigans off.

From Hope playing dear, departed “Aunt Lucy” in drag to this exchange: Bob: “First, you sell me for two hundred bucks. Then I’m gonna marry the Princess, then you cut in on me. Then we’re carried off by a desert sheik. Now we’re gonna have our heads chopped off!” Bing: “I know all that”. Bob: “Yeah, but the people who came in the middle of the picture don’t”. Bing (flabbergasted): “You mean they missed my song!?!”, ROAD TO MOROCCO is tons of foolish fun, an enjoyable romp through the desert sands with two of the 20th Century’s greatest entertainers at the top of their game. If you’ve never travelled down the ROAD with Bing and Bob, this one’s a great place to start.

Goats and Nuts and MILLION DOLLAR LEGS (Paramount 1932)

Hail, hail Klopstokia! MILLION DOLLAR LEGS is  total  movie anarchy, a throwback to the halcyon days of Mack Sennett. It’s a comedy cornucopia filled with sight gags and verbal nonsense, led by legendary W.C. Fields as president of the mythical country of Klopstokia, about to default on its loans until itinerant brush salesman Jack Oakie comes up with a plan to enter the hale and hearty Klopstokians in the 1932 Olympics and win the huge cash prize being put up by his employer!

Klopstokia is noted for “Goats & Nuts”, their chief exports, imports, and inhabitants! All political disputes are settled by arm wrestling, and President Fields is the strongest of all, though he’s constantly being challenged by his Secretary of the Treasury Hugh Herbert. Presidential daughter Angela (Susan Fleming, future wife of Harpo Marx) and brush salesman Migg Tweeny (Oakie) “meet cute” and immediately fall in love. When asking for her hand, Angela tells her dad she calls Migg “Sweetheart”, which the Prez mistakes for Migg’s real moniker! (Migg: “Listen, my name’s Tweeny” Prez: “You’ll always be ‘Sweetheart’ to me” Migg: “I know, I know, but there’s talk already…)

Secretary Herbert and his traitorous cabinet (including Keystone veterans Irving Bacon, Vernon Dent, and Billy Gilbert , who performs his comical sneeze routine) plot to put Klopstokia’s athletic team out of commission by hiring super-spy Mata Machree, “A Woman No Man Can Resist”! She’s played by luscious Lyda Roberti, parodying Garbo (who starred in 1931’s MATA HARI) and sings the risqué “When I Get Hot in Klopstokia”. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen lithe Lyda slink and wiggle her way to a man’s… err, heart.

You all know what a sucker I am for punny wordplay, and MILLION DOLLAR LEGS is loaded with it, thanks to screenwriters Henry Myers and future Oscar winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz . Here’s a couple of examples:

Migg: “You know what? I love you!”

Angela: “In Klopstokia, we have another way of saying that”

Migg: “In public??”

Then there’s this: Angela: “All the girls in this country are named Angela, and all the men are named George”

Migg: “Why?”

Angela: “Why not!”

Fields is a riot, as always, whether having troubles with his top hat, juggling clubs to stay in shape, or performing as a one-man band. Cross-eyed silent comedian Ben Turpin keeps popping up (for no reason!) as a cloak-and-dagger spy, Andy Clyde as Fields’ Major-Domo could give The Flash a run for his money, and little Dickie Moore steals whatever scenes he’s in as Angela’s brother Willie – apparently the only male in Klopstokia not named George!! All this absurdity is expertly handled by director Edward F. “Eddie” Cline, who went back to Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops, and worked with nearly every great comic in history, from Chaplin and Keaton, to Wheeler & Woolsey and Olsen & Johnson, to the Ritz Brothers and the Andrews Sisters!

MILLION DOLLAR LEGS is sheer nonsense, and I mean that in the best way possible. Predating the Marx Brothers’ DUCK SOUP by a year, the film shares its anarchic spirit, and the two together would make a great double feature when you need to just cut loose and laugh. And we all need that in this day and age!!

Halloween Havoc!: ALIAS NICK BEAL (Paramount 1949)

The worlds of supernatural horror and film noir collided to great effect in ALIAS NICK BEAL, John Farrow’s 1949 updated take on the Faust legend. The film wasn’t seen for decades due to legal complications, but last August the good folks at TCM broadcast it for the first time. I have been wanting to see this one for years, and I wasn’t disappointed! It’s loaded with dark atmosphere, a taut screenplay by hardboiled writer/noir vet Jonathan Latimer , and a cast of pros led by a ‘devilish’ turn from Ray Milland as Nick Beal.

The Faust character this time around is Joseph Foster, played by veteran Thomas Mitchell . Foster is an honest, crusading DA with political ambitions. When he says aloud he’d “give my soul” to convict racketeer Hanson, Foster receives a message to meet a man who claims he can help. Summoned to a seedy tavern on the fog-shrouded waterfront, he meets the dapper Nick Beal, who describes Foster as an “incorruptible enemy of the legions of evil”, with just a hint of disdain. Beal leads the DA to Hanson’s hidden ledger, containing proof of the gangster’s various crimes. While Foster looks it over, Beal mysteriously vanishes into the night.

Soon Foster’s party bosses offer him the governorship, and up pops Beal again. Foster’s wife warns him to stay away from the stranger, so Beal recruits a down-on-her-luck bar girl named Donna Allen to do his bidding. The Reverend Dr. Garfield, an ally of Foster’s, feels he’s seen Nick somewhere before, but can’t quite place him (Garfield: “Did anyone ever paint your portrait?” Beal: “Yes, Rembrandt in 1665”). Beal’s machinations, including a bargain with corrupt political boss Faulkner, put Foster in the governor’s chair, causing the party to disown the formerly incorruptible DA, accusing him of “misuse of unauthorized campaign funds”. Beal demands the office of Keeper of the State Seal, Faulkner demands his cronies get choice appointments, and the beleaguered Foster confesses all in his inauguration speech, resigning from the post. Politically and financially ruined, his marriage in a shambles, Foster is at his lowest ebb when Beal decides to cash in on their bargain, accompanying him to “los isla de las almos perditas”… Spanish for the island of lost souls!! Can Joe Foster be saved??

Ray Milland was one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood, moving from romantic leading man to two-fisted hero to despicable villain with the greatest of ease. His Nick Beal is suave and sophisticated, cunning and cruel, and his sinister malevolence permeates every scene. He scares the hell out of Donna, manipulating a word-for-word dialog between her and Foster before it even happens. His whistling though the chiaroscuro shadows and fog bound wharf of DP Lionel Linden’s cinematography is eerie to behold, and Milland makes for one hell of an emissary of evil.

Thomas Mitchell as Foster is the film’s main focus, and the actor was a master of eliciting sympathy from an audience, as he proved time and again in classic movies from STAGECOACH  to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. His wife is played by Geraldine Wall, usually relegated to uncredited or bit parts, and she shows she could’ve done so much more if given half a chance. George Macready , of all people, plays the good Rev. Garfield, who stumbles on to the truth about Beal. This is probably my favorite performance by actress Audrey Totter , who plays the prostitute Donna, trapped in Beal’s dark web. Her early scenes as the hardcore hooker stand in sharp contrast to what happens when Beal glams her up and sics her on Foster, and her fear of the demonic Beal is palpable. Totter, one of noir’s best bad girls, really gets to shine in this part!

A plethora of Familiar Faces parade across the screen on the sides of both good and evil. Among them you’ll recognize Henry O’Neill as Judge Hobson, Fred Clark as the crooked boss Faulkner, Daryl Hickman as a teen involved with Foster’s Boys Club, and Danny Borzage, King Donovan , the ubiquitous Bess Flowers , Maxine Gates, Theresa Harris , Percy Helton, Nestor Paiva, Tim Ryan, Douglas Spencer, and Phil Van Zandt. ALIAS NICK BEAL works on so many levels, as fantasy, as film noir, as a political expose’, and as dark horror, and reminded me so much of the works of Val Lewton. With that excellent, powerhouse cast and timeless story, it’s a classic that will fit well into your Halloween viewing season, but can be enjoyed any time of year.