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.

Horror On The Lens: Son of Frankenstein (dir by Rowland V. Lee)


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For those who might have a hard time keeping their Universal monster films straight, 1939’s Son of Frankenstein is the third Frankenstein film, following the original and Bride of Frankenstein.  It’s the first one to have been directed by someone other than James Whale.  It’s the one that features the one-armed policeman.  It’s the one that features Bela Lugosi as a vengeful grave robber named Ygor.  It’s also the final film in which Boris Karloff would play the monster.

And, on top of all that, it’s also a pretty good movie, one that holds up as both a sequel and stand-alone work!

Son of Frankenstein opens decades after the end of Bride of Frankenstein.  (How many decades is open for debate.  I’ve read that the film is supposed to be taking place in 1901 but there’s a scene featuring a 1930s-style car.  Let’s just compromise and say that the film is taking place in 1901 but someone in the village owns a time machine.  I think that’s the most logical solution.)  Henry Frankenstein is long dead, but his name continues to strike fear in the heart of Germans everywhere.  Someone has even tagged his crypt with: “Heinrich von Frankenstein: Maker of Monsters.”

Needless to say, everyone in the old village is a little uneasy when Henry’s son, Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) shows up at the castle.  In fact, they’re so uneasy that the local constable, Krogh (Lionel Atwill), pays Wolf and his family a visit.  Krogh explains that, when he was a child, the Monster ripped his arm out “by the roots.”  AGCK!

(That said, that really doesn’t sound like the Frankenstein Monster that we all know and love, does it?  I suspect there’s more to the story than Krogh is letting on…)

Wolf explains that he has no plans to bring the Monster back to life.  He then sets out to do just that.  Wolf wants to redeem Henry’s reputation and the only way to do that is to prove that Henry was not misguided in his quest to play God.  Helping Wolf out is Ygor (Bela Lugosi).  Ygor is a former blacksmith who was due to be hanged but, because of a malfunction with the gallows, he just ended up with a disfigured neck.

It turns out that Ygor happens to know where the Monster’s body is being hidden.  When Wolf brings the Monster back to life, he quickly discovers that Ygor’s motives weren’t quite as altruistic as Wolf originally assumed.  It turns out that Ygor wants revenge on the jury that sentenced him to death and now, he can use the Monster to get that revenge.

As for the Monster, he no longer speaks.  Instead, he just angrily grunts and he kills.  Whatever kindness he developed during the previous film was obviously blown up with Elsa Lanchester at the end of Bride of Frankenstein.  On the one hand, it’s fun to see Karloff as the monster.  On the other hand, it’s impossible not to regret that he doesn’t get to do much other than stumble around, grunt, and strangle people.  There are only two scenes where Karloff gets to show any real emotion and, in both cases, he does such a great job that you can’t help but regret that the monster is such a one-dimensional character in Son of Frankenstein.

But no matter!  Regardless of how the film uses (or misuses) the Monster, it’s still an entertaining 1930s monster film.  Basil Rathbone does a great job as the imperious but ultimately kindly Wolf von Frankenstein.  And Bela Lugosi’s natural theatricality makes him the perfect choice for Ygor.  To be honest, I actually think Lugosi does a better job as Ygor than he did as Dracula.  I know that’s blasphemy to some but watch the two films side-by-side.  Lugosi is clearly more invested in the role of Ygor.  Considering that Lugosi reportedly felt that he was mistreated in Hollywood, it’s tempting to wonder if some of his own anger informed his performance as the perennially mistreated and bitter Ygor.

Son of Frankenstein closed out the Karloff Frankenstein trilogy.  When Frankenstein’s Monster made his next appearance, he would be played by the same actor who later took over the role of Dracula from Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr.

(And interestingly enough, Lugosi would subsequently take over the role of the Monster from Chaney.  But that’ll have to wait for a future review…)