Josef von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS was the top grossing film of 1932 (in US and Canada)- at the apex of the salacious Pre-Code era. With good reason.
This exotic film takes us on a journey via rail in Northern China from Peking to Shanghai. There’s a uniquely diverse group of passengers that sometimes clash and sometimes simmer for the ride. Ultimately, each are surprised to find out who can be trusted, and who should be feared, when they become directly embroiled in local politics and civil unrest. And when old flames rekindle things really start to sizzle.
Marlene Dietrich portrays Shanghai Lily, along with her traveling companion, Anna May Wong as Hui Fei, and they make a HELLUVA entrance. Shanghai Lily is mysterious, drop-dead gorgeous and with every little movement she poses draped in the most stunning fashions, enveloped in the most sensuous glowing light and shadows. Her boudoir reputation precedes her.
Shanghai Lily: “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”
As for Ms. Anna May Wong’s Hui Fei, she is one tough lady and not to be messed with. While Hui Fei projects street-wise, her striking companion is apparently bedroom savvy. Like Shanghai Lily, she also carries herself with high style and a penetrating beauty.
Clive Brook plays Captain “Doc” Harvey. He’s a suave military man and a former lover to Shanghai Lily. He’s apprehensive to her flirtations at first with the promiscuous rumors. As hard as he tries to avoid falling for her, in the end, and via her sacrifices that reveals her love for him, her undeniable sexual appeal and their love prevail.
As for the rest of the cast of key characters, Warner Oland (most famous for his many turns as Charlie Chan) is untrustworthy Mr. Henry Chang. Lawrence Grant is Reverend Carmichael, who discovers there’s more to Shanghai Lily than a tarnished reputation. Louise Glosser Hale is the uptight, prude Mrs. Haggerty. And Eugene Pallette is spectacular as the hilarious Sam Salt.
For comic relief, Eugene Pallette’s Sam Salt delivers the most witty lines. Keep in mind that by today’s standards they are blatantly racist, but there’s something about his delivery (thanks to that lovable Pallette way) that makes us laugh at his non-PC ignorance of Chinese culture, rather than the 1932 audiences that likely laughed with him. As my daughter pointed out, he’s sorta a Pre-Code Peter Griffin (Family Guy reference):
Sam Salt: “I can’t make head or tail outta’ you, Mr. Chang. Are you Chinese, or are you white, or what are you?”
Mr. Henry Chang: “My mother is Chinese. My father was white.”
Sam Salt: “You look more like a white man to me.”
Mr. Henry Chang: “I’m not proud of my white blood.”
Sam Salt: “Oh, you’re not, are you?”
Mr. Henry Chang: “No, I’m not.”
Sam Salt: “Rather be a Chinaman, huh?”
Mr. Henry Chang: “Yes.”
Sam Salt: “What future is there in bein’ a Chinaman? You’re born, eat your way through a handful of rice, and you die. What a country! Let’s have a drink!”
Sam Salt: “I don’t know what you’re saying brother… but don’t say it again.”
Along with these inappropriately funny moments, the other characters provide us entertainment in just how uncomfortable they are just to be near Shanghai Lily, as though her ill-repute will somehow rub off. But what really makes this film is not these things, nor the story (although those are all great), it’s the visual telling of the story… through dramatic, jaw-dropping fashions and through the so-hot-the-screen-steams images of Marlene Dietrich.
When you consider Marlene Dietrich’s personal life as well as her behind the scenes relationship with director Josef von Sternberg, this performance may not come as a surprise. She was brilliant in understanding how to convey her image on screen in just the perfect light and shadows. That is, she was the perfect student of Josef von Sternberg’s teachings in these skills (skills she utilized the remainder of her life.)
But when you add in Dietrich’s own extremely sexual persona, it’s no wonder this film unravels as though we the audience are experiencing one long seduction directly from the empress of Pre-Code seduction herself. Let’s face it, she isn’t really seducing the ilk of glossy smooth Clive Brook. The camera is the object of her desire. And we all benefit in her aim.
This perspective on SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932) is my contribution to the “Hot & Bothered Blogathon” as hosted by those saucy bloggers Theresa of Cinemaven’s Essays from the Couch and Aurora of Citizen Screen, July 9-10. Explore both of their sites to read more lustful and licentious posts.