Shanghai Express (1932)

dir. Josef von Sternberg. Ensconced in a first-class cabin, Madeline (Marlene Dietrich) also known as Shanghai Lilly, bumps into a lost love, Captain Harvey (Clive Brook) on their way from Peking (Beijing) to Shanghai. Their reunion is interrupted by the ongoing Chinese civil war. This film looks terrific, the high contrast theatrical lighting giving a luxurious film noir atmosphere. In a supporting role as Madeline’s traveling companion is Hui Fei (Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American Hollywood star). Wong and Dietrich have real chemistry on screen and are very believable as friends and confidants as they sit around smoking and listening to the gramophone. There is no spark between Madeline and the dull Captain Harvey, who in one needlessly cruel gesture even refuses to shake Hui Fei’s hand. Marlene Dietrich’s wardrobe is superb, a variety of black lace, feathers, veils, and elegant coats. I suspect her first outfit was an inspiration for Madeline Kahn’s Dietrich impersonation in Blazing Saddles (1974), possibly the name of Madeline is a link? Another supporting cast member that has some amusing moments is Louise Closser Hale as the prudish boarding house proprietor, Mrs. Haggerty. Hale also played Jean Harlow’s mother in Platinum Blonde (1931), the previous year, and is very good at acting thoroughly indignant! Ultimately the underwhelming and uninspired central romance causes the film to run out of steam (ba-dum-tish).

By Nicholas Hudson-Ellis

Co-Founder & Film Programs Manager of Bangkok Screening Room.