SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932) is one of the films on my 2016 list of 10 Classics to see this year.
I've actually now seen SHANGHAI EXPRESS twice, first at the TCM Classic Film Festival at the end of last April, and again thanks to the TCM Universal Vault Series DVD.
I enjoyed the film tremendously at the TCM Festival, but after seeing 15 films there in 3-1/2 days, it was a title I felt I needed to see another time before writing about it. This was no hardship, as I liked it so much I was happy to watch it twice in a few months' time! SHANGHAI EXPRESS is pure bliss for anyone who loves "train movies," and I definitely count myself on that list.
The TCM Festival screening was the first one of the day, and although I was near the front of the line, when I entered the theater there was already quite a crowd of Spotlight passholders, who are guaranteed seating. The packed audience was shown a beautiful digital restoration.
The movie was introduced by Jeremy Arnold, who briefly interviewed Nicholas von Sternberg, son of the film's director, Josef von Sternberg, seen below:
von Sternberg had positive memories of Marlene Dietrich, including sitting on her lap when he was a little boy. He joked that his father was nicknamed "Midnight Joe" because of his perfectionist father's long film days. Given that the movie was filmed roughly 85 years ago, it was rather remarkable hearing from someone who had known both star and director well.
Lee Garmes and the uncredited James Wong Howe and costume designer Travis Banton, the movie has so much style that it's almost a character in and of itself! The film is a must-see for those who want to experience great moviemaking of the '30s.
The movie runs a fast-paced 82 minutes, telling the story of a disparate group of travelers journeying by train from Peking to Shanghai. In some ways the movie rather reminds me of a Western, as journeys by wagon train, stagecoach, and the like are often the basis for the story in Westerns, and many of the character "types" seen in such stories are similar. That said, Western characters never had the glamour of Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong!
Dietrich plays Madeline, a woman of "easy virtue" who is nicknamed Shanghai Lil. ("It took more than one man to change my name...") Rather like the Claire Trevor character in the Western STAGECOACH (1939), the other travelers find the presence of Lil and Hui Fei (Wong) scandalous.
One traveler, however, reacts far differently when he sees her: "Doc" Harvey (Clive Brook), a British Army doctor, had had an affair with Madeline five years ago. Doc and Madeline find they are still desperately attracted, but can they accept and trust each other?
It's all gorgeous, suspenseful, and builds to a highly satisfactory resolution in every way.
I've not made a secret that I'm not a particular fan of Dietrich; I strongly disliked her in a couple of roles such as A FOREIGN AFFAIR (1948), while tolerating her in more low-key, less mannered parts such as STAGE FRIGHT (1950) and NO HIGHWAY IN THE SKY (1951). SHANGHAI EXPRESS, however, might have made a believer of me. She's perfect in this exotic role, acting as much with her physical movements as with her dialogue.
Wong is equally fascinating as a tough, laconic woman who is all too used to being treated with disrespect. I also loved Clive Brook as the lovelorn, gallant Doc. I want to make it a point to check out more of his movies; I did see him in ON APPROVAL (1944) at the 2014 TCM Fest.
The supporting cast includes Eugene Pallette, Lawrence Grant, Emile Chautard, Forrester Harvey, and Louise Closser Hale. The latter plays an annoying woman but I worried about the safety of the little dog she was smuggling on the train all the way through my first viewing!
More reviews from this year's "10 Classics" list coming soon!