Shanghai Express (1932) Director: Josef von Sternberg
“You’re in China now, sir, where time and life have no value.”
In Shanghai Express, Marlene Dietrich delivers a highly memorable and seductive performance (her fourth of seven films with Josef von Sternberg). She struts about from scene to scene in expensive furs surrounded by gorgeous and hazy imagery created by Von Sternberg. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Cinematography (winner). It outperformed the famous Grand Hotel at the box office and was also remade into two later films in the ’40s and ’50s.
The story is taken from a Henry Hervey story called “Sky Over China.”
We are dropped into the midst of the Chinese Civil War as several Westerners board a three-day train from Peking to Shanghai which is stopped and inspected by government officials, but it is later hijacked by a revolutionary leader. The story is based on true events that took place in 1923 when a warlord successfully ransomed 25 Westerners and 300 Chinese individuals in a similar scenario. The Hays Office kept a close watchful eye over Shanghai Express for its portrayal of Western and Chinese politics. In the film, the revolutionary leader is Henry Chang (played By Swedish actor, Warner Orland) who coldly remarks, “you’re in China now, where time and life have no value” as cattle are removed from the train tracks. One of the Westerners is “Shanghai Lilly” (played by Marlene Dietrich) a notorious Western escort in China also called the “notorious White Flower of China.” Aboard the train, she happens to meet her former lover Captain Donald Harvey (played by Clive Brook), a medical doctor. The two rekindle their love for one another after five years apart -the Captain had previously left her out of petty jealousy. However, the other Western passengers despise Shanghai Lilly for her illicit prostitution.
“It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lilly…”
The revolutionary Henry Chang ambushes the train at midnight hoping to use one of the Westerners as ransom in exchange for one of his captured compatriots. Chang offers Shanghai Lilly the chance to be his mistress in his palace but she refuses. Captain Harvey tries to defend her by punching Chang him in the face, but Chang then rapes Lilly’s associate who is a Chinese woman named Hui Fei (played by Chinese actress Anna May Wong). When Chang threatens to burn out Dr. Harvey’s eyes, Shanghai Lilly strikes a deal to depart with Chang as his mistress, however Hui Fei then shockingly kills Chang, and they all flee the scene, but Harvey does not forgive Lilly for choosing Chang, not knowing her decision was made to save him from torture. Eventually, Lilly and Harvey embrace in love at the close of the film.
Shanghai Express is a beautiful but dark (almost noir-styled) film that is replete with excellent acting from Marlene Dietrich, an enticing plot, and wonderful cinematography. Shanghai Express is a classic example of all the glamor and decadence of the Golden Age of Hollywood amidst luxurious and ornate costumes contrasted with the hanging haze of smoke and mirrors.