It can be said that Shanghai Express was the counterpart to MGM’s lavish Grand Hotel. Both were released in 1932 and both feature a solid ensemble of actors. This was the first Marlene Dietrich film I saw back in 2015 and I was struck by, not only it’s lavish feeling, but the incredible lighting. Sternberg really created something magnificent. Of course, the famous shot of Dietrich being lit from above is instantly iconic. I would go as far to say that that shot, along with her top hat and tails, is one of cinema’s iconic images. This truly cemented the Dietrich legend. Sadly, as she got older, Dietrich wanted to retain the image of a legend. Nonetheless, her role of Shanghai Lily in Shanghai Express is triumphant and the film is a stylish visual feast.
The film is set in 1931. China is involved in a civil war and looms in the background, and later foreground, of the film. The opening credits feature Chinese symbolism – the symbols, masks, a man banging a gong and fish in water; all evocative images. The film begins with passengers boarding the train to Shanghai which is stationed in Peking. A car pulls up at the station and Shanghai Lily walks out. This is a magnificent image and confirms Dietrich to be the major star that she was. Dressed in black with a net veil and feathers she is a beauty and you cannot take your eyes off her. Lily has loose morals. Indeed, a man comments on how “everyone in China knows Shanghai Lily”. The opening sequence is visually impressive and is testament to Sternberg’s wonderful direction particularly with a tracking shot of soldiers and workers preparing for the train’s departure. Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brook) is boarding the train. He speaks with an upper class British accent and has courteous manners, a real gentleman. He is reunited with Lily on the train. She calls him ‘Doc’ and he knows her as Magdalen. She, with considerable frank, informs him “it took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily”. There is still sparks between them. He still has the watch she gave him. Lily is very image conscious, perhaps a nod to Dietrich herself? She asks Donald “have I lost my looks?” to which he replies “no you’re more beautiful than ever”. We see, throughout the film, Lily in countless beautiful gowns.
On board the train, Lily is sharing a compartment with Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), a Chinese woman of similar reputation to Lily. Wong deserves attention here. She achieved international stardom in the 1920s with her sex appeal and exoticism, notably in the 1929 British silent film Piccadilly. She is incredibly mysterious as Hui Fei, hardly saying a word and seems to be cold and icy. In the compartment, Lily quips to Hui Fei “don’t you find respectable people terribly dull?” The sets deserve a mention too. So much care is lavished onto the sets, they are stunning. The passengers get to know one another and, during dinner, the train is stopped by Chinese government soldiers who search the train looking for spies. They apprehend a rebel agent and check everyone’s passports. The mysterious Henry Chang (Warner Oland) sends a coded message in a telegraph office and he later questions the passengers. Later on, he forces himself on Hui Fei and she fights him off. He is sleazy and Hui Fei shows great strength by fighting him off.
The love between Donald and Lily is evident. They have another encounter at the back of the train. She is dressed in furs and is, not only sexy, but exudes power and control – a true seductress and using femininity as a power tool. They kiss and she is left feeling happy. Sternberg uses, as mentioned, stunning direction and the lighting is sensational. He highlights Dietrich’s face in several close ups indicating the importance of his leading lady further cementing the Dietrich legend. Also, a shot which sees Chinese soldiers pulling down a ramp for them to storm the train could come from both a 1920s German film, and a 1940s Film Noir. It is stunning and incredibly evocative. The Chinese soldiers storming the train is seemingly the work of Chang who, again, takes all the passengers in for questioning as the train stops. There is brutality in his questioning. Opium dealer Eric Baum (Gustav von Seyffertitz) is branded with a hot piece of metal. Lily is also questioned and Dietrich’s confidence is in abundance here. We find out more about her. While she flippantly retorts that she is travelling to Shanghai to buy a new hat. She also reveals she has been in China for 8 years, her parents have forgotten her (perhaps because of her loose morals) and has been engaged several times. She does not seem to mind that she is a loose woman, she seems to enjoy it. Donald, who is listening to this, punches Chang and defends Lily’s honour after Chang is disparaging towards her. Lily shows great strength as Donald is taken away by the officials. A shot of Lily at the window looking for Donald is not only evocative but moving and shows a vulnerable side to Lily – another wonderful piece of direction by Sternberg. We even see Lily pray as this shot dissolves into smoke billowing from a moving train.
Hui Fei is an extremely important character in the narrative. We see her thinking about suicide as she pulls out a knife, Lily quickly stops her. The knife is an important marker here. A little later on, Hui Fei emerges from the shadows and stabs Chang in the back not once but twice. Wong is calm, steely and not acting hysterical that one would expect from an actor or actress. Her dialogue is stilted and not particularly natural as she tries to reason with the officials. This is a minor criticism as Dietrich is so watchable in the film and her acting is terrific. She has been forced to go with Chang so Donald can be freed as he been detained. But as Hui Fei has killed him, Lily is also free. Again, we see her praying and she has been crying, any criticisms of her dialogue are only minor in light of this.
Critics and reviewers labelled this as “Grand Hotel on wheels” owing to its lavishness and ensemble of actors. What follows is the most famous sequence of the film and an iconic image of cinema. Dressed in a black nightdress, Lily makes her way to Donald’s compartment. He is still very much in love with her. She returns to her compartment, lights a cigarette and turns out the light. Wrapping her nightdress around her she smokes the cigarette. At first, she seems in turmoil, almost as though she cannot believe it. Her hand is shaking. The moving train can be causing it or Donald’s love. Her face is lit from above and there are goddess connotations here – light coming from an ecclesiastical source (namely heaven) and is shining on her face as a beacon of tranquillity making her a goddess. She later smiles knowingly and is triumphant. As she smokes the cigarette smoke beacons in the frame and the shot dissolves into a montage of newspapers. It is an extraordinary sequence and memorable, a highlight of Sternberg and Dietrich’s collaborations.
The train stops in Shanghai, it has finally reached its destination. Lily gets off the train and is attracting male attention. The passengers are relieved to be safe. Hui Fei is being questioned, still steely but she is the heroine of the film as she, so to speak, saved the day. Lily is waiting for Donald. She looks at the watches on sale in one of the stores at the station, seemingly for Donald. He walks up to her and she puts the watch on him. He won’t let her leave his side again, they are meant to be together. The watch can act as a metaphor for Lily ensnaring him, she has him, at last! They finally kiss and Donald quips “many lovers come to railway stations to kiss”.
A film of style, lavishness, beautiful lighting and romance, Shanghai Express was a massive success and was the highest grossing film of 1932. It was nominated for three Academy Awards – Best Picture (losing to Grand Hotel), Best Director for Sternberg and Best Cinematography for Lee Garmes’ work on the film. It had a well-deserved win for Best Cinematography, a triumph of lighting and direction. The image of Dietrich being lit from above will always remain an iconic image of cinema. Arguably Dietrich’s finest moment.
Shanghai Express, Dir. Josef von Sternberg. Paramount, 1932.