Pre Code Confidential #19: Marlene Dietrich in SHANGHAI EXPRESS (Paramount 1932)


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Marlene Dietrich is TCM’S Star of the Month for May, and “Shanghai Express” airs tonight at 12:00 midnight EST. 

A train ride from Peking to Shanghai is fraught with danger and romance in Josef von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS, a whirlwind of a movie starring that Teutonic whirlwind herself, Marlene Dietrich. This was the fourth of their seven collaborations together, and their biggest hit, nominated for three Oscars and winning for Lee Garmes’s striking black and white cinematography.

The Director and his Muse

Dietrich became a huge sensation as the sultry seductress Lola Lola in Sternberg’s 1930 German film THE BLUE ANGEL, and the pair headed to America to work for Paramount. Marlene became the autocratic director’s muse, as he molded her screen image into a glamorous object of lust and desire. Sternberg’s Expressionistic painting of light and shadows, aided by Dietrich’s innate sexuality, turned the former chorus girl and cabaret…

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Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Shanghai Express (dir by Josef von Sternberg)


(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.

Pre Code Confidential #14: THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH (RKO 1932)


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Director Gregory LaCava is remembered today mainly for a pair of bona fide classics: MY MAN GODFREY and STAGE DOOR. LaCava, who started his career in early silent animation, was also responsible for THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH, a Pre-Code screwball comedy begging to be rediscovered. It’s a crazy, innovative, pedal-to-the-metal farce headlined by fast-talking Lee Tracy and “Mexican Spitfire” Lupe Velez as a pair of carny con artists who work their way up to The Great White Way in grand comic style.

Tracy does his rapid-fire spieling schtick as a carnival barker promoting hot-tempered tamale Lupe, a hootchie dancer who spends most of the movie wearing next to nothing. Together with pal Eugene Pallette , they leave the carny life behind (with the law on their tails!) and head for Broadway, where Lee promises Lupe he’ll make her a star. The trio pawn Lupe off as Turkish Princess Exotica (with Tracy pawning off an unwitting…

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Structural Failure: THE BIG STREET (RKO 1942)


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When I hear the word “Runyonesque”, I think about racetrack touts, colorful Broadway denizens, dames with hearts of gold, and the like. If you want to make a Runyonesque movie, what better way than to have author Damon Runyon himself produce it, as RKO did for 1942’s THE BIG STREET. All the elements are there, the jargon, the characters, but the film suffers from abrupt shifts in tone from comedy to drama, and a totally unpleasant role for Lucille Ball . The result is an uneven movie with a real downer of an ending.

Based on Runyon’s short story “Little Pinks”, it follows the unrequited love of bus boy Augustus “Little Pinks” Pinkerton for torch singing gold digger Gloria Lyons, dubbed “Her Highness” by Pinks. Henry Fonda plays Pinks as  lovestruck, spineless sad sack, dubbing Lucy Her Highness, even though she’s thoroughly rotten to him. When she’s smacked by her gangster boyfriend Case Ables ( Barton MacLane )…

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Why I Love THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (Warner Brothers 1938)


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Readers of this blog know CASABLANCA is my all-time favorite movie, but THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD is definitely in the Top Ten, maybe even Top Five (I’d have to think about it… sounds like a future post!). The story’s been told on-screen dozens of times, from the silent 1922 Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler to Disney’s 1973 animated version to the recent Russell Crowe/Ridley Scott offering. But it’s this 1938  classic that remains definitive, thanks to a marvelous cast, breathtaking Technicolor, and the greatest cinematic swordfight in history.

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You all know the legend of Robin Hood by now, so no need for a recap. Instead, I’ll go right into what makes this film so great, starting with Errol Flynn as the brave Sir Robin of Locksley. Flynn was at the peak of his career here, after starring in such action-packed hits as CAPTAIN BLOOD   , THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT…

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The Fabulous Forties #39: My Man Godfrey (dir by Gregory La Cava)


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The 38th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties box set was My Man Godfrey, which is strange considering that My Man Godfrey is not a 40s film.  The back of the box insists that My Man Godfrey was made in 1946 but it was actually made in 1936.  Errors like this aren’t uncommon when it comes to Mill Creek but, even beyond that simple mistake, My Man Godfrey is clearly not a product of the earnest and pro-American 1940s.  My Man Godfrey may be a screwball comedy but it’s a comedy that is very much a product of the far more cynical 1930s.  It’s a comedy that could only have come out during the Great Depression, at a time when FDR was promoting his New Deal and yet many Americans were still out-of-work and struggling to make ends meet, forgotten by a country determined to buy into a feel good narrative regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

But no matter!  My Man Godfrey might not technically belong in the Fabulous Forties box set but I’m still glad that it was there because it is an absolutely fantastic film.

The Godfrey of the title is played by the always charming and always funny William Powell.  When we first see him, he’s living in a garbage dump with several other men who have lost their money, homes, and family.  These are men who spend their time wondering when and if things are ever going to get better.  While the rest of the country insists that happy days are here again, these men know it’s simply not true.  They are truly the forgotten men.

Fortunately, there’s also a scavenger hunt going on!

For charity, a group of rich people are running around the city and collecting various oddities.  And among those oddities — “a forgotten man!”  When wealthy and snobbish Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick) stops off at the dump, she offers Godfrey five dollars to come with her and be her “forgotten man.”  Offended, Godfrey reprimands her and a shocked Cornelia stumbles back and falls into an ash pile.  Cornelia’s younger sister, the flighty Irene (Carole Lombard), sees this and laughs.  Mostly to get back at Cornelia, Godfrey agrees to be Irene’s forgotten man.

When Irene takes Godfrey to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel so that the game’s organizers can declare him to be an authentic forgotten man, Godfrey is disgusted by the silly and wealthy people that he sees around him.  After he is authenticated, Godfrey proceeds to loudly denounce everyone in the hotel.  Every one is scandalized, except for Irene.  Irene asks Godfrey if he would like to come home with her and be her family’s new butler.  Reluctant but broke, Godfrey agrees.

One of the joys of this scene is seeing the other things people found during the scavenger hunt. Love the monkey.

One of the joys of this scene is seeing the other things people found during the scavenger hunt. Love the monkey.

Godfrey, however, is far less amused.

Godfrey, however, is far less amused.

The next morning finds Godfrey in the Bullock mansion, prepared to start his duties as a butler.  He turns out to be a surprisingly adept butler but there’s only one problem.  It turns out that everyone was drunk last night and, as a result, nobody remembers Irene hiring Godfrey.  As Godfrey reintroduced himself to the family, he gets to once again know the Bullocks.

For instance, patriarch Alexander Bullock (Eugene Pallette) is a well-meaning man but he’s incapable of controlling his eccentric family or their excessive spending.  He faces each day with the weary resignation that his household is a disorganized mess and that he’s on the verge of losing his business.

Alexander’s wife, Angelica (Alice Brady), lives in her own world and confronts every problem with nonstop and delusional positivity.  She is very excited to have taken on a protegé, an artist named Carlo (Mischa Auer, who was justifiably nominated for an Oscar for his wonderfully odd performance).  Carlo is often surly and spoiled but he does do a pretty good impersonation of a gorilla.  Whenever the often dramatic Irene is declaring herself to be the most miserable rich girl in the world, Angelica insists that Carlo cheer everyone up by grunting and jumping around the room.

Mischa Auer as Carlo

Mischa Auer as Carlo

Mischa Auer as a gorilla

Mischa Auer as a gorilla

(Apparently, the gorilla impersonation was something that Auer used to do at Hollywood parties.  The role of Carlo was specifically created with the idea of capturing Auer’s act on film.  As a result, Auer was one of the first actors to ever be nominated for Best Supporting Actor and he started a new career as a comedic character actor.)

Cornelia is selfish and materialistic.  Though she may not remember much about the scavenger hunt, she does remember Godfrey humiliating her.  From the minute she discovers that Godfrey is the new butler, she starts to conspire against him.  When her necklace disappears, everyone is sure that she hid it herself just to frame Godfrey.  The truth, of course, is a little bit more complicated.

And finally, there’s Irene.  Irene is spoiled but she’s not selfish.  She’s also not as ditzy as everyone assumes.  It’s just that she sees the world in her own unique way.  Almost as soon as Irene remembers that she hired Godrey, she decides that she’s in love with him.  She also decides that Godfrey is her protegé.  After all, if her mother can have a protegé, why can’t she!?

Carole Lombard and William Powell

Carole Lombard and William Powell

Carole Lombard was a masterful comedienne whose career was tragically cut short when she was killed in a plane crash in 1942.  Lombard is absolutely adorable in the role of Irene, a character to whom I very much related.

Of course, there is more to Godfrey and his past than he actually let on.   And, even after he becomes the new butler, Godfrey doesn’t forget where he was living just a few days before.  My Man Godfrey is a hilarious comedy but it’s also a comedy with a social conscience.

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I love this film.  It’s a screwball comedy in the best sense of the term, a film where all of the characters are eccentric while also remaining human.  William Powell and Carole Lombard were briefly married before they teamed up in My Man Godfrey and their chemistry is delightful to watch.  Finally, the supporting cast is memorable in the way that only a collection of great 1930s character actors can be.

My Man Godfrey is a great film.  It may not be from the 1940s but I’m glad it was included.

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(By the way, just between you and me — I had a lot of fun watching this movie and writing this review.  It kind of reminded me why I started writing about movies in the first place.)

Cleaning Out The DVR #33: Heaven Can Wait (dir by Ernst Lubitsch)


(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by the end of today!!!!!  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)

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The 1943 film Heaven Can Wait opens with a 70 year-old man named Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) stepping into an opulent drawing room and having a conversation with a refined but menacing man known as His Excellency (Laird Cregar).  From their conversation, it quickly becomes obvious that Henry has recently died and His Excellency is in charge of Hell.  Most people who come to see His Excellency do so because they want to argue that they do not belong in Hell and they usually end up falling through a convenient trap door.  However, Henry is there to argue that, after living an enjoyable but dissolute life, he belongs in Hell.

Henry tells the story of his life.  He tells how he was born into great wealth and influenced by his down-to-Earth grandfather (Charles Coburn).  As a young man, he spent most of his time chasing after showgirls bur eventually, he met the beautiful and kind-hearted Martha (Gene Tierney).  He immediately fell in love with Martha but, unfortunately for him, she was engaged to his cousin (Allyn Joslyn).  Henry, however, used his considerable charm to convince her to elope with him.

(It helps, of course, that Henry’s cousin was totally and completely obnoxious, in the way that rival suitors often are in films like this.)

And, for 25 years, Henry was happy with Martha.  It took him a while to settle down and, at one point, Martha even left him as a result of his affairs.  However, they always got back together and Henry eventually did settle down, even going so far as to prevent his son from running off with a showgirl of his own.  It was only after Martha herself died that Henry, who always felt he didn’t deserve her love, returned to his old ways.

And, Henry argues, it’s because he was unworthy of his wife that he deserves to spend an eternity in Hell.  Does His Excellency agree?

Well, it would certainly be a depressing movie if he did.

One of the great things about TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar is that it gave me a chance to discover several films from director Ernst Lubitsch, films like The Smiling Lieutenant, The Love Parade, Ninotchka, and Heaven Can Wait.  Of those four Lubitsch films, Heaven Can Wait is probably the least substantial but it’s still an undeniably entertaining and nicely romantic film.  This is one of those films that you watch because the sets look wonderful, the costumes are to die for, and the performers are all pleasant to watch.  It’s pure entertainment, a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the word.

In fact, tt was such a crowd-pleaser that it was nominated for best picture of the year.  However, it lost to the ultimate crowd-pleaser, Casablanca.