Shanghai Express (1932) Review

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.

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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.

Grand Hotel (1932) Review

Grand Hotel (1932) Director: Edmund Goulding

“Always the same. People come. People go. Nothing ever happens.”

★★★★★

The wunderkind of MGM, Irving Thalberg, could seemingly do no wrong. The Best Picture winner in 1932, Grand Hotel offers a wonderfully glamorous picture, perhaps a bit of foreshadowing for Hollywood in the ’30s. It is curiously one of the only films to win the top award without being nominated in any other category. The film boasts an all-star cast of Greta Garbo as the dancer, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, and Lionel Barrymore -popular dubbed “the greatest cast ever assembled.” Director Edmund Goulding acquired the nickname “Lion Tamer” for his ability to deal with the many temperamental Hollywood stars, and Grand Hotel was no exception.

William A. Drake’s screenplay for Grand Hotel was based on his own play adaptation of a 1929 best-selling novel “Menschen im Hotel” (translated ‘People at the Hotel’) by Vicki Baum, a former Berlin hotel chambermaid. MGM purchased the movie rights for $35,000. The film premiered at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles amid much fanfare.

Grand Hotel both opens and closes with the musings of Doctor Otternschlag (played by Lewis Stone), an injured veteran from the war, who states that at the Grand Hotel, it is “always the same. People come. People go. Nothing ever happens.”

The Grand Hotel in Berlin is a ritzy, art-deco hotel from a long bygone era of class and sophistication. The plot of the film is episodic. We follow the stories of five central characters -the start of the film reveals their separate telephone conversations- including the Baron (played by John Barrymore), a broke aristocrat who has resorted to thieving; Mr. Kringelein (played by Lionel Barrymore), a dying man looking to finish his life by spending his savings, an industrial businessman named Director Preysing (played by Wallace Beery), and Flaemmchen (played by Joan Crawford) who is a stenographer. The Baron flirts with Flaemmchen but then falls in love with a ballerina dancer (played by Greta Garbo), much to the dismay of Flaemmchen, who works for Director Preysing. However, when the Baron tries to rob the industrialist Director, he is killed sending many into grief but the hotel quickly moves on. The Director goes to jail, Flaemmchen and Mr. Kringelein go to Paris. The ballerina goes to her next show, thinking the Baron will be on the train. The luxury and opulence continue onward unabated.

“I want (‘vant’) to be alone”
-Greta Garbo famously utters this line, perhaps as a nod to her famously reclusive lifestyle.

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A Farewell To Arms (1932) Review

A Farewell to Arms (1932) Director: Frank Borzage

“The Greatest Love Story of the War”

★★★☆☆

Frank Borzage’s interpretation of Hemingway’s famous novel stars Gary Cooper -who also starred in the 1943 version of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls– and Helen Hayes. The film won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Sound. A Farewell to Arms is a classic, however it fails to capture much of Hemingway’s novel, and so it falls a bit short in my eyes. Whereas Hemingway’s novel was a sorrowful tragedy, the film focuses exclusively on the undying love between Henry and Catherine.

A retelling of the plot will not do justice to the magnificent novel, however a terse summary here will suffice. Lieutenant Frederic Henry is an American ambulance driver in Italy during the First World War where he meets Catherine Barkley, a nurse. They fall in love and are married while Henry lies wounded and recovering on a hospital bed. Shortly thereafter, their love is discovered and Henry goes derelict from his unit on the Italian front in order to return to Catherine only to find that she has disappeared to Switzerland. She was sent away from her job as a nurse when it was discovered she was pregnant. Henry arrives at her hospital just in time to find her dying while in labor and the child also tragically dies. She dies with Henry by her side.

Scarface: The Shame of the Nation (1932) Review

Scarface: The Shame of the Nation  Director: Howard Hawks (1932)

“The World Is Yours”

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★★★☆☆

A United Artists film, Scarface is one of the greatest gangster films ever made. Following from Little Caesar and The Public EnemyScarface details the rise and fall of a Chicago gangster (modeled on the life of Al Capone). The film was infamously later remade in 1983 starring Al Pacino.

It opens with a title that reads:

“This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America and of the callous indifference of the government to his constantly increasing menace to our safety and our liberty. Every incident in this picture is the reproduction of an actual occurrence, and the purpose of this picture is to demand of the government: ‘What are you going to do about it?’ The government is your government. What are YOU going to do about it?”

The plot follows Tony Camonte (played by Paul Muni) and his boss Johnny Lovo (played Osgood Perkins) as they kill one of the top crime bosses on Chicago’s Southside. Tony chases after Johnny’s girl and also angers Johnny by conducting a number of drive-by shootings against the Irish gangs on the Northside (in a version of the notorious Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago). Tony tells Johnny’s girl that he looks out at the giant sign reading: The World Is Yours and he believes it. Eventually, Johnny arranges for Tony to be killed in a drive-by, but he escapes and kills Johnny, claiming himself the leader of the gang. However he goes to meet his sister who is recently married to a close comrade of Tony’s, unbeknownst to Tony. He kills his comrade and appears to fall into a depression as his gang begins falling apart. The police close in on his headquarters, a stray bullet kills his sister, and Tony is shot and killed beneath the sign reading: The World Is Yours.

The film is based on Armitage Trail’s novel of the same name. It was a highly controversial film that had to be heavily edited to minimize the violence. The subtitle was also added because it was accused of glamorizing the violent mob life.

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Scarface is a good movie. Paul Muni gives a great performance (capturing Capone’s awkward mannerisms) and the film takes its influences from earlier gangster films, as well as elements of German Expressionism.