|Marlene Dietrich with Josef von Sternberg|
|Anna May Wong|
|Dietrich, Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl|
|Writer Harry Hervey|
SHANGHAI EXPRESS B USA (82 mi) 1932 d: Josef von Sternberg
You’re in China now, sir, where time and life have no value. —Henry Chang (Warner Oland)
Ornate spectacle in the heart of the Great Depression, offering escapism at its finest, the fourth of the seven Dietrich/Sternberg collaborations and the most successful at the box office, becoming the highest grossing film of the year, grossing over $3 million in the depths of the Depression and helping keep Paramount out of bankruptcy, with many viewing this as the greatest collaboration between von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. That’s preposterous, of course, as nothing in this high camp melodrama of blackmail, rape, and murder reaches the depths and heights of The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel) (1930), yet this more fully represents the Hollywood entertainment aspect in all its flying colors, where spectacle matters most, throwing caution to the wind when it comes to everything else, and von Sternberg could certainly produce that, where this was an attempt to takes us on an exotic adventure in a strange and mysterious land. Shot almost entirely on a train, like Bergman’s The Silence (Tystnaden) (1963), the characters are trapped in a constricted physical space that becomes a kind of psychological limbo, with projections of the interior world of the characters unfolding like a dream play. Traveling from Beijing (Peking) to Shanghai during the 1920’s Chinese Revolution, a time when the Nationalist Government had only a tenuous control over various rebel groups in the country, the film anticipates John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), with the Chinese replacing American Indians in a virulently racist depiction, viewed entirely as “barbarous savages,” like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where the heart of China may as well be the jungles of the Congo, an exotic otherworld filled with reckless killings and disturbing misadventures, where the heartless Chinese are viewed as purely disposable savages, while a white community of travelers hold the fort on imperialist civilization. This aspect of the film all but engulfs viewers in the travesty surrounding racism, still using white actors to portray Chinese, using a host of Cantonese-speaking Asian extras who don’t speak Mandarin, while dressing them up to fit the stereotype of the day, playing obedient lackeys serving the white patrons on the train or ruthless murderers with a megalomaniacal streak of pure evil. Like Ford, the white passengers on the train represent a community by themselves, filled with their own stereotypical casting, with Marlene Dietrich playing Shanghai Lily, an infamous high-class courtesan renowned for breaking hearts, who travels up and down the east coast of China, “living by her wits,” Captain Donald “Doc” Harvey (Clive Brook), a distinguished British military doctor and former lover of Lily, Henry Chang (Warner Oland, yes, the infamous Dr. Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan), an enigmatic half-Chinese traveler, Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), a Chinese courtesan, Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale), an American running a boardinghouse in Shanghai, playing that elderly, busybody woman that Hitchcock loved so much, like Dame May Whitty in The Lady Vanishes (1938), another train spectacle, or Ethel Griffies in The Birds (1960), Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette), a trader and inveterate gambler who is a loudly obnoxious American, Reverend Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), a Christian missionary from England, along with stereotypical French and German passengers that complete the cosmopolitan depiction of colonial Europe, a global collective fitting the profile of Agatha Christie’s beloved Murder on the Orient Express, though the screenplay was written by Jules Furthman based on the 1931 short story Sky Over China by Harry Hervey, yet no evidence has been found that this story was ever published. The film plays into the racist ideology of the Yellow Peril, reflecting the ultimate fear Westerners have of becoming slaves of the East and its savagely “perverted” way of life. Based on the blatantly negative depictions, the Chinese government banned the film and demanded its full withdrawal from worldwide circulation or Paramount would be barred from China. Of note, Frank Capra’s THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1933) was also banned. China withdrew the ban and the matter was apparently resolved through the U.S. Embassy when Paramount pledged not to produce another film concerning the same issues, yet the same story was the basis for Paramount's Ralph Murphy film NIGHT PLANE FROM CHUNGKING (1942), with Paramount remaking the story again in William Dieterle’s PEKING EXPRESS (1951). Lee Garmes won the Academy award for Best Cinematography, though his cinematographers all complained that von Sternberg did his own camerawork, while the film was also nominated for Best Film and Best Direction. Despite being set on a Chinese train, Anna May Wong is the only major Chinese actor in the film. Warner Oland altered his appearance and appears in “yellowface,” made to resemble a Chinese man. While this is a Pre-Code film, what caught the eye of the Hayes Code censors was his character Chang’s remark that he was not proud of his white blood, which really caused a stir because it showed the white race unfavorably. This fits the profile of a white savior film, as a knight in shining armor rides into the stirred-up controversy and saves the day for white civilization. During the era when the film was made, there was no conscientious objection to derogatory racial depictions, unless, of course, whites were affected, as all other races were still viewed as racially inferior. This film screams that sentiment.
Even the opening credit sequence pays homage to “the Orient,” using a distinctive bamboo style of lettering, before opening at a busy train station that creates a supposedly exotic landscape that accentuates first and foremost different class structures, the picture of white colonialism, creating a densely packed yet fictitious atmosphere of Orientalism with each successive frame providing a hectic bustle of incidental activities, baggage carriers straining with packages, freight being loaded, passengers saying their goodbyes, where there is a lot of clatter, including unintelligible dialogue yelled back and forth from the Chinese railroad workers. What fills the screen are a collective group of Chinese coolie laborers that lift distinguished paying customers around in a pagoda coach as an early style taxi service, traditional Asian workers in bamboo hats, a large number of soldiers, and vendors bringing their livestock, including chickens and cows, even a camel, with a constant presence of railroad workers, yet in the midst of this claustrophobic pandemonium there are upper class Westerners traveling first class, all thinking only of themselves, used to being pampered with privilege, showing utter disdain for those beneath them, particularly Reverend Carmichael, who refuses to ride in the same compartment with two disreputable women, while Mrs. Haggerty shows more concern for her dog than the riffraff on the train, removing herself from their company as well. Both Lily and Hui Fei arrive by coolie transport, distinguishing themselves with first class travel, with someone else always carrying their massive luggage, while Lily, dressed entirely in black, is wearing a veil, silk gloves, with a feather boa and furs. While Dietrich was the central figure and star, it’s significant that Anna May Wong was the first Asian-American film star to gain international recognition, though here she plays a hypersexualized Asian woman who is all sophisticated manner and style, much like Dietrich herself, though given very few lines to speak, mostly translating spoken Chinese into English for the passengers, yet she is repeatedly treated as an outcast. Due to anti-miscegenation laws in the United States, films were prohibited from depicting interracial romance, adding Hollywood’s racism in hiring only whites, this severely restricted any roles available for her, so she instead successfully established a career in Europe, specifically England and Germany, where she befriended Dietrich. This was the same time Greta Garbo, for instance, or later Ingrid Bergman, left Europe seeking greater creative freedom in the United States. But Dietrich and Wong are a contemporary pair, basically following their own rules, smoking in their compartment while listening to a phonograph playing jazz records. Both are ostracized from the rest of the group, exactly as Claire Trevor is in Stagecoach, largely due to rigid Christian standards of moral decency. Lily distinguishes herself by not belonging to any man, yet amusingly declares, “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.” Liberated women were a rare commodity in the early 30’s just about anywhere in the world, yet in Hollywood, screen siren Dietrich and screwball comedy icon Katharine Hepburn set early examples. Of note, Dietrich is always dressed in black, which accentuates her blond hair, while Wong, braless in her sleek attire, invariably dresses in lighter colors, in contrast to her darker hair. Von Sternberg was a master in lighting his scenes, while close-ups were reserved exclusively for the two women, both bathed in light, with a wind machine ruffling Dietrich’s impeccably coiffed hair. The best lines are also reserved for Dietrich, an exoticized femme fatale who has a penchant for a witty, sardonic delivery, always ambiguous and amusingly playful, even when dealing in troublesome situations. When asked under threat why she is traveling to Shanghai, she acerbically answers, “I wanted to buy a new hat.” Yet when she reunites with Doc, long lost lovers, they rekindle the spark almost immediately, with Dietrich providing all the allure, while Clive Brook couldn’t be more wooden. Well he could, and he has been, but they don’t exactly mesh in this film, both existing in a relationship defined by willful indifference, though he’s broodingly gallant, a good conversationalist, and a brain surgeon known for his intelligence. While he tries to provide the suave, British manner of James Bond, for instance, known for his sophisticated charm with women, that’s not happening here, as the Brit is simply out of his league, while Dietrich is speaking multiple languages in this film, offering a sense that she’s more dexterous and experienced in nearly all worldly matters. It’s a shame Dietrich was not paired with better leading men so early in her career, as she simply walks circles around the ones Hollywood places in front of her, with viewers continually questioning the heat generated, which feels more staged than real, but with Dietrich, it’s all about her mystique.
Von Sternberg frames the reunion between Lily and Doc in the observation deck of the train, where their first kiss is synchronized to a train whistle blowing, with Lily putting on his captain’s hat, asserting her role in the romantic liaison. The eroticism of their past bleeds into the present, providing a sense of urgency in the same way as CASABLANCA (1942). While Doc saves the day with a typical male swashbuckling demeanor, refusing to buckle under pressure, it’s the woman working under the surface that allow him the glory, but they were really the determining forces, something John Ford, for instance, never imagined, subverting the female role with a declaration of independence. While this is ostensibly an adventure film, with Chinese rebel forces attacking the soldiers on the train and taking charge of the train, led by rebel commander Chang, who has been traveling in disguise, he needs a prominent figure to dangle in front of Chinese authorities in order to exchange for his second in command who was arrested on the train in an earlier stop, conducting interviews with passengers before settling upon Doc, who is needed to perform an essential surgery for the governor-general of Shanghai. Yet what truly stands out, once again, are the women, where both Dietrich and Wong were early pioneers of cross-dressing onscreen, unafraid to explore a more masculine side, where they succeed only by conforming to the values and standards of masculinity, displaying a level of valor when they do. What does stand out is after being rebuffed by Lily, Chang takes advantage of his position, forcibly bringing Hui Fei to spend the night, where he mauls and eventually rapes her, discreetly shown offscreen, yet her furious reaction afterwards tells all, with Lily preventing her from actually committing suicide. While she and Lily are both courtesans, they are viewed differently, as Hui Fei is sexually degraded and cast aside, while he wants Lily to come to his palace and be his “Queen,” the “White Flower of China,” which she flatly refuses. It’s a disturbing racial picture, where white is viewed as superior to Chinese, yet Chang has her cornered, as he’s holding Doc as a prisoner, so she has no real fallback position. While obviously concerned about Doc’s safety, what transpires onscreen actually strains credulity, becoming something that seems designed only for the censors of the day, as they turn Lily into a reformed Joan of Arc character, who prays all night for his safety, her face illuminated by white light, surrounded by darkness, doing her best Maria Falconetti impression, allegedly inspired by a conversation with none other than Reverend Carmichael, who is stunned at what he sees, offering a central premise of the film, “Love without faith is like religion without faith.” While all the other passengers cower in fear and want no part in this military debacle, Doc and Lily both have a sense of the moment and act heroically, with Lily promising to go with Chang if it means the release of Doc. While the Reverend has the capacity to see through this charade, the dullard of the day is Doc, who misreads what has transpired and is stung by her choice, thinking he’s being dumped once again, literally feeling sorry for himself and unable to see the light. Hui Fei, however, still stung by her cruel molestation, is angered to the point of no return, hiding in the shadows of the next room and plotting revenge, acting with a methodical purpose, like a silent assassin out of Louis Feuillade’s classic silent film serial LES VAMPIRES (1915-16). Both women assert themselves through a constructed yet cleverly disguised illusion, seen by the white community on the train as outcasts and morally depraved, yet outside of Doc, they are the ones that spring into action to save them all, profiles in courage that the others failed to display, exuding the necessary moral force to overcome stunning odds stacked against them. Their moral character is largely unnoticed under a façade of sexual allure, where the community sees what they want to see, with women acting as mirrors reflecting back the community’s own prudish narrowmindedness, remaining blind to their real moral convictions. The femme fatale aspect of their personalities allows them to operate under disguise, using their own guile to act independently from the group, asserting their own individuality, something the others lack, as they don’t have the same life experiences, having been protected by class, wealth, and racial advantages, so they don’t have the capacity to act in the same way. By subverting a woman’s expectations, they assume whatever role the situation calls for, removing the straightjacket of a conditioned society and asserting their own individual morality. In much the same way, von Sternberg gives Dietrich greater freedom and latitude than most other directors of the period, stylistically preferring longer takes, which allows her to universally express her wisdom, usually in the face of male stupidity, where she’s able to rise above and freely act in a way few other actresses have ever been able to do. Her style, however, is not psychologically determined or realistic, but set in a prescribed von Sternberg setting, perfectly composed, where artifice replaces authenticity, yet this allows her to continually maintain an air of mystery.
Can we surmise that the James Cagney musical number to Shanghai Lil, Shanghai Lil (Full Scene) | Footlight Parade | Warner Archive YouTube (4:52), the following year in Footlight Parade (1933) is a tribute to this film? There are even Anna May Wong lookalikes, white actresses in yellowface, including Ruby Keeler, along with overt Pre-Code opium den references.