Shanghai Express

“It took more than one man toFamous still change my name to Shanghai Lily,” Marlene Dietrich tells her former lover in Shanghai Express (1932). This was before the Hays Code — just — when an actress could get away with a line like that. Dietrich plays “a woman of many casual affairs,” as Mordaunt Hall delicately put it in his review for the New York Times.

Mr. Hall was quite smitten. Dietrich, he wrote,  “. . . is languorous but fearless as Lily. She glides through her scenes with heavy eyelids and puffing on her cigarettes.” There is, indeed, the famous still of Dietrich, cigarette in hand, gazing skyward. Another of her in the train corridor wearing a negligee. This last one was too much for Vanity Fair. Director Von Sternberg “traded his open style for fancy play, chiefly upon the legs in silk, and buttocks in lace, of Dietrich, of whom he has made a paramount slut,” the magazine accused.Marlene-Shanghai-3

In fact, Shanghai Lily was reputed to have “wrecked a dozen men, up and down the China coast,” according to the friend of her paramour in the film, Doc Harvey (Clive Brook), but she never comes across as a slut. For one thing, she’s too fascinating, and she has no illusions about herself. We can’t help rooting for her, and in the course of a train journey from Peking to Shanghai, she proves her moral worth and wins her lover back.

Nearly everyone else on the train seems to be hiding something. There’s a half-Chinese warlord (played by a white actor in “yellow face,” Werner Oland, who would soon become famous for playing Charlie Chan), a disgraced French officer, a missionary, a gambler, a stuffy old lady and an opium dealer. Gradually we learn their secrets as the train is commandeered by rebels. Only the other woman of ill repute, a Chinese prostitute named Hui-Fei (Anna May Wong) demonstrates comparable courage. 

This was Wong’s greatest role in American film. Mostly she was consigned to playing delicate flowers or Dragon Lady parts. Here she smokes a lot, to great effect (I’d put her right up there with Bette Davis), and never abandons her dignity.

Definitely worth watching.

2 thoughts on “Shanghai Express

  1. Movies and other forms of storytelling have lost something with the decline of train travel. The journey might be short but was likely to cover many hours or days: time to pursue your own drama or get caught up in someone else’s; time for comedy, romance, moral dilemmas, international intrigue, murder. The number of characters could be large, and the mix could change: people might get on or get off along the way, even between stations. There were private spaces and public ones—so many settings. And there was usually something to see outside the windows—or rather there was always something outside, even if, in the dead of night, you couldn’t see it. Airplanes lose almost all of that, and airplane movies tend to be thrillers (in my possibly imperfect recollection), although Pedro Almodóvar made something different of the setting in I’m So Excited!

    Your comments call all of that to mind, but they leave me wondering just a bit. What’s Lily doing on the train to begin with? How does her fascination emerge for us? I’m sure all would become clear if I saw the film.


    1. You’re so right about train movies, John. A stagecoach or ocean liner would also work, and there was also Grand Hotel, a fine ensemble picture.

      As for Shanghai Lily’s reason for being on the train, I believe she was plying her trade. One character calls her a “coaster,” and I don’t think he was referring to the article upon which you rest your drink.


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