Well, it’s been a long time between drinks but today I’m going to be reviewing Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932). The film calls to mind two movies that I’ve seen, Grand Hotel (1932) and Hitchcock’s later film The Lady Vanishes (1938). All three make great use of famous ensemble casts, and the latter film is similar to Shanghai in its interesting blend of suspense and comedy.
Shanghai Express is set on, wait for it, a train travelling from Beijing to Shanghai in 1931. There are people of various backgrounds on this train, including the notorious courtesan Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich) and British Captain Harvey (Clive Brook), who have a “”past””. China is facing civil war and the train is attacked by rebels, with the passengers taken in to be questioned and used by the rebels’ leader. What follows is an entanglement of love, betrayal and misunderstanding, which I won’t go into for the benefits of space and spoilers.
Before I get into my six little things, I’d like to address the film’s race issues. Clearly, this is an American film (albeit directed by Austrian von Sternberg and starring the German Dietrich) from the early 1930s, and there is some heavy Oriental stereotyping going on here. It’s certainly cringeworthy and a little uncomfortable so I think it’s extremely important to recognise this serious issue. There’s a neat little line near the beginning where a multiracial character (played by Swedish actor Warner Oland in yellowface, ugh) is asked by an American to explain whether he’s ‘Chinese or white’. The character promptly dismisses and condemns his white ancestry. I thought it nicely conveyed the struggles of being caught between two worlds as well as an awareness of the outright rudeness of people. Unfortunately, this is ultimately undone when the character turns out to be the antagonist shortly after and hence he’s the stereotypical ethnic bad guy. A blog post by Kartina Richardson discusses the race issues of Shanghai Express very well.
Anyway, here are my six little things from Shanghai Express. (Fair warning: my copy of this film isn’t the greatest).
1) “It took more than one man to change my name… to Shanghai Lily.” BOOM! Big, dramatic line delivered with aplomb, that’s what I like to see in an early 1930s drama.
2) Two fabulous and provocative women, Magdalen/Shanghai Lily and Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), sharing a train berth because of the uppity moral disgust of their fellow passengers. I was getting envious just watching them smoke cigarettes and listen to Magdalen’s gramaphone. Unfortunately, Wong is severely under-used in this film. She doesn’t say much, as the contradictory kind of docile but suspicious Chinese stereotype, but Hui Fei is still an important character. She pretty much saves the day. All the awards for Hui Fei. Finally, I recommend learning more about Anna May Wong because her story shows the hardships of being one of the first, if not the first, Asian American film stars.
3) This kiss between Magdalen and Captain Harvey that cuts away to the train whistle blowing its steam. Ah, how I love Pre Codes. (Just a reminder that the Hays Code also brought in the 3 second rule for kisses, which would remain for decades).
4) The cut between Magdalen and Captain Harvey after their deceptive interaction. You can almost see the cogs turning in their heads as they plan their next move, Harvey wondering what to think and Magdalen trembling as she smokes. No dialogue, just the sound of the train running along the tracks.
5) Shanghai Express won the Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1932, and it’s not hard to see why. The chiaroscuro look, the use of shadows and light in this film, are striking and give moments such as this a very intense atmosphere. I could also make a whole blog post about Dietrich’s dazzling costumes in this film but I’ll restrain myself.
6) The ending. It’s a nice, sweet relief from the tension of the film, although it is a bit jarring when contrasted with the rest of Shanghai Express. Perhaps a little disappointing.
I realise that this post has almost solely focused on the relationship between Magdalen and Harvey in the film, as well as a little on Anna May Wong’s character. To be honest, they’re my favourite elements and what I consider to be the most interesting parts of Shanghai Express. It’s worth a look for these reasons, along with the enjoyably tense plot.