Pre Code Confidential #23: Marlene Dietrich in BLONDE VENUS (Paramount 1932)


cracked rear viewer

Director Josef von Sternberg and his marvelous muse Marlene Dietrich  teamed for their fifth film together with BLONDE VENUS, a deliciously decadent soap opera that’s a whole lot of fun for Pre-Code lovers. Sternberg indulges his Marlene fetish by exploring both sides of her personality, as both Madonna and whore, and Dietrich plays it to the hilt in a film that no censor would dare let pass just a scant two years later.

How’s this for an opening: a group of schoolboys hiking through the Black Forest stumble upon a bevy of naked stage chanteuses taking a swim! The girls scream and try to hide, and beautiful Helen (Marlene) tries to shoo them away. Ned Faraday refuses until Helen agrees to meet him later. Flash forward to a scene of Helen and Ned now married with a young son named Johnny. Ned, a chemist by trade, has been poisoned by…

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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.

The Lost Best Picture Nominee: The Patriot (dir. by Ernst Lubitsch)


So, in case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve got a love for film trivia in general and Oscar trivia in particular.  I also love to make lists.  Last night, these twin loves led to me staying up way too late making a list of every single film ever nominated for best picture.  As I looked down at that list, I thought to myself, “That’s not even a 1,000 movies.  Why it would only take a few years for me to see and then review every single film ever nominated.”  So, I am now a woman on a mission.  Well, actually, I’m on several missions but this is definitely one of them.

Unfortunately, there is one nominee that its doubtful that I — or anyone else will ever see — and that is 1928’s The Patriot.  Not only was it the last silent film to be nominated for best picture but it’s also the only nominee to subsequently become a “lost” film.  With the exception of a few publicity stills and the film’s trailer, all trace of The Patriot has vanished.  Maybe there’s a copy of it sitting in the corner of someone’s attic.  It has happened in the past, after all.  More likely though, the Patriot is simply gone. 

Here’s the trailer:

The Patriot was based on the 1801 assassination of Tsar Paul I of Russia.  Paul was played by Emil Jannings who, the previous year, had won the very first Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in The Last Command.  Paul’s assassin — the patriot of the title — was played by character actor Lewis Stone who later played almost everyone’s father in the 1930s.  Director Lubitsch was, like Jannings, a relatively recent arrival from Germany.

The Patriot was an expensive, “prestige” presentation that was pretty much doomed the moment that Al Jolson spoke in The Jazz Singer.  With audiences now obsessed with “talking pictures,” the silent Patriot was a box office bomb.  Paramount hastily withdrew the film from circulation, added a few sound effects (though no dialogue because of Jannings’s thick German accent), and then re-released the film with the little success.  The Patriot — the last silent film nominated — lost to the first sound film to win Best Picture, Broadway Melody.

The box office failure of The Patriot pretty much drove the last nail into the coffin of the silent film era.  Jannings reacted to the coming of sound by returning to his native Germany and continuing his film career there.  He co-starred with Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel.   As Germany’s most distinguished actor, Jannings was a supporter of Adolf Hitler and he appeared in several Nazi propaganda films during World War II.  In 1945, following the fall of the Third Reich, Jannings reportedly carried his Oscar with him as he walked through the streets of Berlin.  He died in Austria in 1950 at the age of 65. 

Lewis Stone, meanwhile, prospered in sound films and was a busy character actor until he died of a heart attack in 1953.  Reportedly, he dropped dead while chasing some neighborhood children who had been throwing rocks at his garage.

Ernest Lubitsch also had a very succesful career in Hollywood and specialized in sophisticated romantic comedies and musicals.  While Jannings was making propaganda films for Hitler, Lubitsch was directing the anti-Nazi comedy, To Be Or Not To Be.  He died of a heart attack in 1947, reportedly while having sex with a starlet who was auditioning for a role in his latest film.

The Patriot remains lost.