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In the early 1930's, director Josef von Sternberg transformed a plump, not-very-successful German actress into an international sex goddess named Marlene Dietrich. Their first collaboration, The Blue Angel (1930), was followed by a Hollywood contract for Dietrich, and two more films in which her mystery and allure blossomed under von Sternberg's guidance. Shanghai Express (1932), the fourth of their seven films together, is perhaps the apotheosis of the partnership.
Hollywood wits called Shanghai Express, which deals with an eventful train journey between Peking and Shanghai, "Grand Hotel on Wheels." Dietrich plays Shanghai Lily, a lady of easy virtue known as the "White Flower of the Chinese coast." During a time of political unrest, she boards the train in Peking, along with an assortment of characters with their own agendas. They include Clive Brook, as an English officer and former lover of Lily's; Warner Oland, a rebel leader traveling incognito; and Anna May Wong, Lily's companion, a fellow prostitute hoping for a new start. The train is hijacked by the rebels, and the simmering tensions among the characters explode.
From the beginning of their collaboration, von Sternberg and Dietrich had been having an affair, although both were married. Von Sternberg was clearly in control behind the camera, but increasingly, it appeared that Dietrich, with her non-exclusive attitude toward sex, had the upper hand in the romance. She indulged in affairs with Gary Cooper and Maurice Chevalier, then went back to Germany to see her husband and daughter. Von Sternberg was feeling both personally and professionally frustrated, and wanted to abandon the partnership. Critics, too, were beginning to grumble that perhaps the Dietrich-von Sternberg films were too rarefied, that the exotic German beauty might do well to work with another director. Dietrich, however, would not work with anyone but von Sternberg, and he began preparing Shanghai Express. Shortly before the film went into production, von Sternberg's estranged wife sued Dietrich for alienation of affections and the suit was later dropped.
Given the tense circumstances, and von Sternberg's tyrannical manner and mania for perfection, working on Shanghai Express was a stressful experience for everyone. Von Sternberg shouted so much that he lost his voice. A production executive gave him a microphone to use, and von Sternberg went one better and hooked up a huge public address system, so his voice boomed in all corners of the soundstage. Cinematographer Lee Garmes recalled that the director acted out all the roles and insisted the actors imitate him. "His impersonation of Anna May Wong had us all in stitches. But we didn't dare show our amusement."
Von Sternberg's obsessiveness paid off early in Shanghai Express, in the scenes of the Peking railroad station, created on the Paramount back lot and in nearby towns with train tracks. The scenes are densely packed with faux-Chinese atmosphere and layer upon layer of detail. In his memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, von Sternberg himself recalled one such detail. "We had to plan to have a cow give birth and nourish its calf near noisy railroad tracks, so that it would be undisturbed by clanging bells and hooting whistles when my train came along through the crowded streets to be stopped by an animal suckling its young."
The most beautiful and exotic of von Sternberg's creations in Shanghai Express, of course, is Dietrich herself, swathed in designer Travis Banton's feathers and veils, and stunningly lit and photographed by Lee Garmes. In one particularly ravishing image, only her pale, elegant hands are lit, clasped in prayer for her former lover. As the world-weary courtesan, Dietrich also murmurs what is probably her most famous line: "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily." The surefire combination of glamour and adventure made it the most successful of the Dietrich-von Sternberg films and at Oscar time, Shanghai Express was nominated for Best Picture (it lost to Grand Hotel, 1932) and von Sternberg was nominated for best director for the second year in a row. But only Lee Garmes won the award for his cinematography.
Dietrich and von Sternberg would make three more films together, each one becoming more and more stylized and remote, and nearly wrecking the careers of both. But many fans agree with critic Pauline Kael that what makes Shanghai Express such fun is that "this movie has style - a triumphant fusion of sin, glamour, shamelessness, art, and perhaps, a furtive sense of humor."
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Executive Producer: Adolph Zukor
Screenplay: Jules Furthman, based on a story by Harry Hervey
Cinematography: Lee Garmes
Costume Design: Travis Banton
Art Direction: Hans Dreier
Music: W. Franke Harling
Principal Cast: Marlene Dietrich (Shanghai Lily), Clive Brook (Donald "Doc" Harvey), Anna May Wong (Hui Fei), Warner Oland (Henry Chang), Eugene Pallette (Sam Salt), Lawrence Grant (Rev. Carmichael).
BW-82m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri