Monday, December 22, 2008

Marlene Dietrich "Shanghai Express"

"It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily." This 1932 pre-code classic, directed by Joseph von Sterberg and starring Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook and Anna May Wong, is one of the early greats of the last century. Dietrich plays a woman who, after losing her love after a silly stunt to make him prove the strength of his affection, becomes a "coaster" – a woman who makes her living by her wits along the coast of China. Boarding the coastal express from Peiping to Shanghai, her love, military surgeon Captain Donald Harvey learns that she is now none other than the notorious Shanghai Lily.

Sternberg and Dietrich collaborated on seven films. It is easy to see why they liked working together. Dietrich's genuine charisma on stage and off is the stuff of legends, and she is in top form here. Sternberg is limited by the technical capabilities of the era. There are, for instance, no zooms. There is only one shot, a scene in a corridor, where the camera moves other than to pan left or right. But Sternberg knows how to use his lead, highlighting her pale beauty with dramatic poses, the use of shadow and spotlight, and the use of one black, one white, and one midtone-grey form in the foreground of most shots.

While the story does feature stock characters, the compulsive gambler, the prudish matron, and the corrupt and cowardly opium merchant, it also has witty lines, complex leads, and true drama. Along with our heroes, the mysterious Henry Chang (Walter Oland, a Swede, famous for his role as Charlie Chan) boards the train. Questioned early on by the clueless loudmouth gambler, Chang admits that he is only half Chinese, and he is not proud of his white ancestry. Also on the train is Hui Fei, (the Chinese-American trailblazer Anna May Wong) another courtesan who some viewers suspect was Lily's former lover. After the train is stopped by revolutionary forces, we learn that Chang is the rebel leader. He holds Captain Harvey hostage. Lily and Hui Fei each get a chance to shine in dealing with Chang, who himself is not an unsympathetic villain.

The movie features some interesting lines and takes some sophisticated shots at conventional hypocrisy. Hui Fei tangles with the boarding house matron, who assures her and Lily that she "only associates with ladies of the highest standards." While her standards turn out to be gossip and fawning over a silly pet dog, Hui Fei shows her mettle as she earns a government reward with some quick and practical action. Early on, Captain Harvey, who loves Lily but doesn't want to admit it, punches Chang for trying to take advantage and tells her that he "would have done it for anyone." Lily returns the favor, lying to Harvey that she too, "would have done it for anyone."

This film is a true joy to watch. It has long been unavailable on US-format DVD. (But see here.) It does play on occasion on Turner Classic Movies. And it is available here at Youtube:


Braeg Heneffe said...

Marlene Dietrich is an absolute star, a super actress. Nice blog...

Ted Keer said...

Thanks, Braeg.

William Scott Scherk said...

I loved her. Especially the pix of her at the Sahara in Las Vegas. Star power.

The Last Goddess