Shanghai Express was the fourth of the seven Dietrich/Sternberg collaborations and the most successful at the box office, grossing over $3 million in the depths of the Depression and helping keep Paramount out of bankruptcy. (In 1930 the Dietrich/Sternberg Morocco and the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers had been Paramount’s highest-grossing films.) It’s also, oddly, the most derivative, clearly having roots not only in MGM’s Grand Hotel, made earlier that year, but also in W. Somerset Maugham’s Rain — Dietrich plays a white prostitute in the Far East who travels with a phonograph and a collection of jazz records, and interacts with a self-righteous minister, Dr. Carmichael (Lawrence Grant — like Davidson in the various film versions of Rain, the Production Code Administration forced Sternberg and writers Harry Hervey and Jules Furthman to defrock Carmichael and make him a doctor of divinity instead of an actual practicing minister), in an isolated environment — though the setting of much of the film on a moving train traveling through a country in the middle of a revolutionary war also anticipates Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (much the way the immediately preceding Sternberg/Dietrich film, Dishonored, anticipates Hitchcock’s Notorious). The story is a highly convoluted one in which Dietrich plays Madeleine, former lover of British army surgeon Donald Harvey (Clive Brook), who staged a scene to make him jealous, only to have him take it seriously and break up with her, forcing her to sell her body for a living and become the notorious prostitute “Shanghai Lily.”
That’s in the backstory: the film proper picks up with Shanghai Lily and Harvey meeting each other again on a crowded train from Peking to Shanghai along with a host of ominous characters: a Chinese prostitute, Hui Fei (Anna May Wong, photographed superbly by Sternberg and Lee Garmes and coming close to matching Dietrich in sheer star charisma — had the movie business been ready for an Asian mega-star in the 1930’s Wong would have had a far bigger career than she did!); the aforementioned Carmichael, D.D.; an elderly lady, Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale), who attempts to smuggle her dog aboard the train in a picnic basket; an American trader and gambler, Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette); a German with a walking cane and a history of heart trouble, Eric Baum (Gustav von Seyffertitz — a former Moriarty playing in the same film with Brook, a former Holmes!); and the most enigmatic character of all, Henry Chang (Warner Oland), a half-European, half-Chinese (was this Sternberg’s in-joke on the frequent casting of the Swedish Oland as an Asian?) who turns out to be the general-in-chief of the revolutionary army and ends up having his forces ambush the train and order Harvey held hostage for the release of his second-in-command, whom government forces took off the train and arrested at an earlier stop in Tientsin. (Wong’s character eventually gets both Harvey and Lily out of this pickle by knifing Chang to death and earning the Chinese government’s $20,000 reward for him “dead or alive.”) Shanghai Express is the one film in the Dietrich/Sternberg series which really seems recycled: not only from Grand Hotel and Rain but from other films in Sternberg’s own canon. The most obvious source is Dishonored: both films cast Dietrich as the ex-partner of an officer, turned prostitute (in Dishonored she was a war widow); both films have Warner Oland in a significant role as a character whose actual loyalties are opposite to his professed ones (in Dishonored he’s an Austrian officer who’s really a Russian spy, while in Shanghai Express he’s apparently a Chinese government army officer but really is the commander of the rebels they’re fighting); and both feature scenes in which Dietrich offers herself sexually to Oland’s character with some higher purpose in mind (in Dishonored to expose him to the Austrian secret service; in Shanghai Express it’s to ransom Harvey and prevent Chang from carrying out his threat to blind him). Shanghai Express also borrows from Sternberg’s pre-Dietrich film The Last Command (1928) in that both take place in a country wracked by civil war and both feature the revolutionaries ambushing a train.
It’s also unique in the Sternberg/Dietrich canon in one respect: not only does he direct Dietrich to be enigmatic, bored and imperturbable, he directs her leading man, Clive Brook, to act the same — almost as if he wanted to remodel him into a male version of the Dietrich character. Their scenes together are among the most bizarrely low-keyed love scenes ever filmed, with each character trying to rekindle the other’s interest through the Sternbergian strategy of feigning utterly no interest at all. Shanghai Express is also probably the most visually baroque of all the Sternberg Dietrichs except The Scarlet Empress (where the stylistics were far more tolerable since it was a period piece); not only are there long scenes in which images are superimposed on each other until it seems the screen will sag under their weight, but this is one film in which Sternberg goes to the max with his style of staging scenes under shadows, gratings, and whatnot. Dietrich wears a veil through most of the film and when she and Brook finally kiss at the end his struggle to get his lips under the veil and onto hers is quite obvious. Shanghai Express deserves points of innovation for its use of sound — much of the film isn’t underscored with music but with natural sound, and Sternberg effectively uses the clattering of the train’s wheels and the sounding of its bell to add drama to his scenes the way less imaginative directors would have trotted in a score; and when the music finally does cut in once the train finally reaches Shanghai there’s a long sequence in which there is no dialogue at all (the frequent mark of a director who started in silents). But this is one film in which, at least for me, all the visual stylistics, all the marvelous underacting, and all the unexpected spins on the clichés (Carmichael turns out to stick up for Lily at the end and urges Harvey to return to her instead of maintaining his moral condemnation, a nice touch) don’t make up for Sternberg’s weakness as a suspense director and a happy ending that is far less effective emotionally than the tragic one of Dishonored. It seems the Sternberg/Dietrich series was at its best at the beginning (The Blue Angel and Morocco) and the end (The Scarlet Empress — which I still think is the best of their seven films together and the greatest Dietrich film, period — and The Devil Is a Woman, Dietrich’s own favorite of her films); in between, in Dishonored, Shanghai Express and Blonde Venus, Sternberg’s attempts to marry his wilder visual and romantic-political ideas to Hollywood’s conventions seem to weaken the series and make the films less effective. — 1/4/03
And speaking of the American Film Institute Catalog, I noticed a mistake in their entry on Sternberg’s Shanghai Express: it says that “modern sources” credit Travis Banton with the costume designs. “Modern sources” my ass; he’s actually credited with the designs in the opening roll. — 1/12/03
Charles and I ran the 1932 Josef von Sternberg film Shanghai Express because watching the PBS documentary on Anna May Wong the night before had piqued my curiosity to see some of her films. Shanghai Express is probably the best film Anna May Wong ever made and the best showcase she ever got — even though she’s still playing the exotic woman of loose morals and she has surprisingly little screen time, though every time she and the film’s star, Marlene Dietrich (this was the fourth of her seven collaborations with von Sternberg and apparently the most financially successful one at the box office, though the Academy snubbed it; it got six nominations, including Best Director for Sternberg, but no awards), appear in a scene together they bond immediately. The story is based on something by hack writer Harry Hervey (whose name I’ve seen on a few other movie credits) but Sternberg said in his autobiography that virtually every film he made, no matter what the nominal basis for its story was, he reshaped it in his own image. The credited screenwriter is Jules Furthman, who according to Frank Capra was usually called in at the end of the writing process and whose main asset was an encyclopedic knowledge of public-domain plots, so if the writers and/or director on a project were stumped for a way to get out of a certain hole they’d written themselves into, he could reference a story safely in the public domain that contained a device they could use to write themselves out of it again. The plot, such as it is, is a fever dream of contemporary China in which Dr. Harvey (Clive Brook), a captain in the British army’s medical corps, is on his way from Peiping, a.k.a. Peking (and now known as Beijing) to Shanghai because he’s needed to perform an operation on the governor-general of Shanghai. Also on the train are two notorious prostitutes, Madeleine a.k.a. “Shanghai Lily” (Marlene Dietrich) and Hui Fei (Anna May Wong),and for all his dubious racial attitudes in some other films (it still rankles me that in Morocco Gary Cooper as a French Foreign Legionnaire referred to the Arabs he was fighting as “walking bedsheets”) Sternberg shows Lily and Hui Fei as total equals, their racial difference meaning less to either of them (or to the people around them who feel insulted by being stuck on the same train with them) than the fact that both are women who’ve had to live by their bodies and their wits, not so much flouting conventional morality as simply ignoring it.
There’s also quite a cast of characters on the train, including American businessman Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette in at least a marginally more multidimensional role than usual), Rev. Mr. Carmichael (Lawrence Grant, who by order of the Production Code Administration — which still threw its weight around even in the 1930-34 period commonly but inaccurately referred to as “pre-Code” — had, like Reverend Davidson in the various films of W. Somerset Maugham’s Rain, to be defrocked from a practicing minister to a mere doctor of divinity), Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale) — a boarding-house owner who, in the closest thing this film has to a comic-relief scene, at first offers Lily and Hui Fei rooms in her super-respectable establishment in Shanghai until she realizes they’re both Those Kinds of Women, German officer Eric Baum (an unusually sympathetic role for ace character villain Gustav von Seyffertitz), French officer Major Lenard (Emile Chautard) — who’s the object of attempts at conversation from the English-speaking characters which he rebuffs because he doesn’t know a word of English — and enough people to populate what’s essentially Grand Hotel on rails (though this film was released February 12, 1932, seven months before Grand Hotel). The main plot concerns Dr. Harvey’s discovery that the notorious Shanghai Lily is his former girlfriend Madeleine, whom he broke up with five years earlier when a stratagem she pulled to make him jealous backfired big-time, and the presence on the train of warlord Henry Chang (Warner Oland in his usual Asian “drag” — it’s the same makeup he used as Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan), who at first poses as a government general but is really the leader of the rebels the government in this part of China is fighting. Early in the movie government soldiers stop the train and arrest one of Chang’s henchmen; later he agrees to trade Dr. Harvey to the Chinese government in return for his associate — but he adds ominously that he didn’t say in what shape he’d return him. Chang threatens to put both Dr. Harvey’s eyes out and brandishes a hot poker with which to do it; Lily agrees to become Chang’s mistress if he’ll let the doctor walk off the train with his eyes intact; Dr. Harvey catches the two of them together and Lily tells him she’s going with Chang but doesn’t tell him (or want him to know) why; and she’s spared life as the camp favorite of a Chinese warlord only because Hui Fei, surprisingly matter-of-factly, stabs him to death out of revenge for his having raped her earlier.
Not that the plot of this one really matters — though one can see the influences of earlier (or contemporaneous) films like Grand Hotel and Rain — like Sadie Thompson, Lily has a phonograph with which she blasts jazz music at fortissimo volume when she’s at her most morally transgressive — as well as its influence on later films like The Lady Vanishes (another thriller set on a train traveling a country in the middle of a civil war); the influence of Sternberg on Hitchcock is one of the film-research papers dying to be done — what matters is the virtually dreamlike quality of the narrative and the superbly atmospheric visuals with which Sternberg tells an offbeat story. Though the basic elements of the plot are the stuff of a million movie clichés, as Charles pointed out afterwards the film — especially its middle third — is off-base not only from ordinary human reality but from the usual movie-cliché version of reality as well, and at times it seems that Shanghai Express (like a lot of the Sternberg-Dietrich films, especially the later ones) is a private dream world to which only the director and his star held the key. Sternberg was not only one of the key directors in the creation of film noir (even though he was considered burned-out by the time the noir era arrived and hardly got the sorts of assignments he deserved), he was an influential artist whose influence went beyond films: after he was forced out of the movie industry he took a job teaching film at UCLA, and Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of the Doors met in one of his classes — and one can readily trace back much of the doom-laden imagery in the Doors’ songs back to Sternberg and his unique, quirky world on film. — 5/25/14
 — Shanghai Express was made in 1932, which puts it not only before Hitchcock filmed The Lady Vanishes (1938) but before Ethel Lina White wrote the novel that was Hitchcock’s story source, The Wheel Spins (published 1933), so it’s entirely possible Ethel Lina White got the idea from Sternberg’s film — just as Charles and I both found ourselves wondering if J. Arthur Rank got the idea to use a gong as the trademark for his releasing company from the giant gong that is sounded under the credits of this film.