One of the most interesting partnerships between a director and actress was the one between Marlene Dietrich and Joseph von Sternberg. They made seven films together, beginning in 1930 with "The Blue Angel," the film that made Dietrich a star. After "Shanghai Express," I've seen all but two of them. Initially I was puzzled as to why Dietrich was considered to be such a major talent, especially with her thick accent and mature persona. However, it was soon clear that Dietrich had a rare screen presence. She usually played the mystery woman with a past, the femme fatale or the worldly cynic. Her foreign aura was an asset, part of her exotic allure. Nearly all of the films she made with Von Sternberg were set nowhere near the United States, but in Morocco, St. Petersburg, Germany, Spain, and China.
"Shanghai Express" was made right in the middle of their run of films together. It takes place during an eventful train journey from Beiping (Peking) to Shanghai, following a motley collection of passengers. There's the British captain Doc Harvey (Clive Brook), a missionary, Reverend Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), gambler Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette), opium dealer Eric Baum (Gustav von Seyffertitz), a French major, Lenard (Emile Chautard), old Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale), who runs a boarding house in Shanghai, and Henry Chang (Warner Oland), who is clearly up to no good. And then of course there's the infamous Shanghai Lily, played by Dietrich, a beauty of ill-repute who many of the passengers whisper to each other about. She ends up sharing a compartment with Hu Fei (Anna May Wong), a Chinese woman with similar talents.
Films about China in this period are fascinating for the way they reflect how Americans thought of the Far East. However, prejudices against Asian actors allowed few real Asians onscreen, so it's very rare to find films set in or around China that manage to achieve any kind of authenticity. The production of "Shanghai Express" never left the US, but it's apparent that there was an unusual amount of care taken to get the little details right in the art direction and casting. They took the trouble to find real Asian extras who could exchange a line or two in Chinese. Anna May Wong, one of the only major Asian-American stars of the era, got a substantial role as Hu Fei, another in a long line of femme fatales for her, but at least one portrayed relatively positively. Warner Oland, already famous for his yellowface performances as Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan, was obliged to play a character who was half Chinese, but in a nice moment of self-awareness, one of the other characters exclaims he looks "more like a white man to me."
The story is very slight, with a little romance, a little humor, a little melodrama, and a little adventuring. We spend the first part of the film watching the characters meet and interact, revealing bits of their lives, their prejudices and their foibles. There is not much to do on the train besides to talk to each other. It turns out that Lily knows one of the other passengers, and had a relationship with him in the past, which she may want to rekindle. The train is stopped mid-journey for the Chinese authorities to arrest a man. Later on, the train is stopped again and the passengers are put in even greater jeopardy as the suspicious Mr. Chang makes his move. Lily ends up in the middle of the situation, and uses her charms on Chang to try and save the man she really loves. It was 1932, remember, and self-sacrificing heroines and grand gestures and outsized emotions were all the rage.
Von Sternberg is known for his beautifully composed black-and-white visuals, and that's certainly the main attraction here. The busy railway stations, the unfamiliar city streets, and the intimate scenes on the train are all marvelous. However, his best shots were all about Dietrich, dressed in a succession of gorgeous costumes, in turmoil, in thoughtful silences, in love. She walks through an empty passageway on the train, the symmetry emphasizing her stature and her loneliness. She gazes up through the black netting of a veil, lit so that the shadows on her face add mystery and drama. Dietrich's performance is top notch as well, playing the kind of completely self-assured bad girl with a heart of gold that we rarely see anymore. She makes Shanghai Lily a memorable screen siren through only a few conversations, a few knowing glances and insinuations.
I'm afraid the romance doesn't really hold up, as Clive Brook is a bore, but all those wonderful character actors playing their minor parts are a lot of fun, and this is the best thing I've seen Anna May Wong in so far. I don't like "Shanghai Express" as much as some of the other Dietrich and Von Sternberg collaborations, but I did find it impressive, especially the way that it managed to avoid an awful lot of the usual racial landmines. And it's still such a beautiful film to look at, even after all this time.