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Although onscreen credits refer to Harry Hervey's work as a novel, no evidence has been found that his story was published. Paramount studio information credits Hervey with the story "Sky Over China," also known as "China Pass." According to letters in the MPAA/PCA files at the AMPAS Library, the Hays Office kept a close watch on the film as it was being developed, and was mainly concerned with the portrayal of the Reverend Carmichael and the depiction of the Chinese revolution. Colonel Jason S. Joy, Director of the Studio Relations Office of the AMPP, noted in a letter to Paramount executive B. P. Schulberg that "there is still some apprehension on our part because for six or seven reels one intensely dislikes a man who is identified with the church." Even after changes were made to make the character more respectable, the Hays Office had reservations about any unfavorable portrayal relating to a minister. Other changes recommended by the Hays Office were to delete the scene of "human heads hanging from poles in the Chinese street [which] are gruesome and will offend a large number of people...also such a scene will invite the opposition of the Chinese as revealing the continuation of barbarous practises." In addition, they feared that a remark by Chang in which he says he is not proud of his white blood will be "objected to on the grounds that it shows the white race unfavorably in contrast with the yellow."
A translation of an article from a Chinese newspaper included in the files expressed the hope that the Chinese consul in the United States would protest the film, as in the newspaper's opinion, the film shows "the darkest side of Chinese politics." Paramount assured the Hays Office that they would consult with the Chinese consulate, but no documentation of such correspondence was found. A 1937 letter from the foreign representative in the Hays Office, Frederick L. Herron, to Joseph I. Breen, Director of the PCA, concerning the Paramount film The General Died at Dawn, however, recalled the Chinese government banned Shanghai Express and demanded its full withdrawal from worldwide circulation, or Paramount would be barred from China. China withdrew the ban and the matter was apparently resolved through the U.S. Embassy when Paramount pledged not to produce another film concerning the same issues.
The synopsis in copyright records has the final scene in which "Lily" and "Doc" reunite take place on the train as they make wedding plans. A news item in Film Daily credits technical aide Tom Gubbins with playing his first role as a Chinese officer. According to copyright records, one thousand extras were used in the film. Additionally, the Santa Fe railroad station in San Bernardino, CA, was transformed to represent the Peking terminal, and other train scenes were filmed around San Bernardino, and in Chatsworth, CA. A modern source credits Richard Kollorsz with the design of the train, and Travis Banton as costumer. In 1931/32 the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences nominated Shanghai Express for Academy Awards in the categories Best Picture and Best Direction. Lee Garmes won the award for Best Cinematography. Harry Hervey's story was the basis for Paramount's 1942 film Night Plane from Chungking, directed by Ralph Murphy and starring Robert Preston and Ellen Drew. Paramount remade Hervey's story again in 1951 as Peking Express, directed by William Dieterle, produced by Hal B. Wallis and starring Joseph Cotten and Corinne Calvet.