(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day. These films could be nominees or they could be winners. They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee! We’ll see how things play out. Today, I take a look at the 1932 best picture nominee, Shanghai Express!)
Welcome to China, circa 1931. The country is beautiful, mysterious, and dangerous. Civil War has broken out and living in China means being caught between two equally brutal forces, the government and the Communists. Captain Doc Harvey (Clive Brook) is scheduled to ride the so-called Shangai Express, the train that will take him from Beiping to Shanghai. The Governor-General is ill and Doc Harvey is the only man in China who operate on him.
For Doc, it’s a matter of duty. However, soon after boarding, he discovers that he is traveling with the infamous Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich). Though Doc has never heard of her, everyone assures him that Shanghai Lily is one of the greatest courtesans in China. When Doc does finally meet her, he’s shocked to discover that Shanghai Lily is his former lover, Magdalen. Did his decision to break up with her lead to Magdalen becoming a courtesan?
“It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily,” she replies.
However, Doc and Lily aren’t the only two people with their own personal drama taking place on the train. The train is full of passengers, all of whom have their secrets. Some of the secrets are minor. One woman spends most of the trip trying to keep anyone from discovering that she’s smuggled her dog onto the train. Other secrets are major. It is suspected that one of the passengers might be working for the rebels. And then there’s people like Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette), who is addicted to gambling and Eric (Gustav von Syffertitz), the opium dealer. Looking over it all is a Christian missionary (Lawrence Grant) who considers both Lily and her companion, Hui Fey (Anna May Wong), to be fallen women.
It’s not an easy journey, no matter how nice and romantic the train may be. If the express isn’t being stopped by government soldiers, it’s being hijacked by a warlord who not only wants to stop Doc from performing the operation but who also wants to take Lily back to his palace…
Shanghai Express is pre-code drama at its best. Director Josef von Sternberg delivers an ornate mix of opulence and melodrama, never shying away from the story’s more flamboyant possibilities. Marlene Dietrich, appearing in her fourth film for von Sternberg, gives a strong and unapologetic performance as Shanghai Lily. Just as Lily never apologizes for who she is, the film both refuses to judge her and condemns anyone who would try. The film’s sympathy is purely with Dietrich and Wong as they do what they must to survive in a world dominated by men who are either judgmental, brutish, or weak. (Within just a few years, the Hays Code would make it impossible for a film like Shanghai Express to be made by an American studio.) With one very important exception, the entire cast is strong, with Warner Oland and Eugene Pallette especially turning in strong support. The only exception is Clive Brook, who comes across as being a bit too dull to have ever won the the heart of Shanghai Lily.
Shanghai Express is not the best von Sternberg/Dietrich collaboration. That would be the brilliantly insane Scarlet Empress. However, it’s still a wonderfully entertaining melodrama. It was nominated for best picture but lost to another entertaining melodrama, Grand Hotel.