It takes more than one viewing of Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express (1932) to fully appreciate why Magdalen (Marlene Dietrich) changed her name to Shanghai Lily, the "notorious white flower of China." This is my third viewing and—as some say—therein lies the charm.
As Juliet Clark succinctly synopsizes in her capsule for Pacific Film Archive's ongoing von Sternberg retrospective: "In Sternberg's fantasy of China, 'the realism of place was given over to the loveliness of decor and the ambiguous iconography of the love goddess' (David Thomson). A train crossing this land of picturesque squalor becomes a political, moral, and romantic battleground where Shanghai Lily (Dietrich), 'notorious white flower of China,' faces a reckoning with her former lover Doc (Clive Brook). A revolutionary episode advances the plot, but for Sternberg, suspense is a matter of sexual rather than political tension. A hostage situation is a test of devotion, and honor is upheld through dishonor, the woman's way. Lee Garmes's chiaroscuro camera dwells incessantly on Dietrich, even when she's irrelevant to the scene; her body takes on a startling spiritual dimension as her manicured hands, framed in darkness, meet softly in prayer."
I appreciate how Clark understands it is "the woman's way" to uphold honor through dishonor in the von Sternberg films of this era and who else best exemplies this than the original alleged "harlot with a heart of gold": Mary Magdalen? Granting Dietrich her name is, perhaps, not as subtle as it seems at first glance, guised as it is underneath Travis Banton's exotic feathers and seductive veils.
What's of noted interest—and a reminder to dismissive critics of the patina acquired by a film over time—is how poorly Shanghai Express was reviewed by Variety back in 1932. Though Josef von Sternberg was given credit for making "this effort interesting through a definite command of the lens", that mention barely suffices to describe the lustrous and complex superimpositional textures of the film. Prayer has never been rendered as voluptuous as when Shanghai Lily prays for the safety of Doc while superimposed smoke plumes from the train's chimney stack lift her prayer heavenwards.
Variety opined "Dietrich's assignment is so void of movement as to force her to mild but consistent eye rolling" and claimed that Shanghai Express ran "much too close to old meller and serial themes to command real attention" and yet—if it weren't for online archives—what measure of attention would that Variety review now receive in the wake of the film's acquired cult following? A caution to all words that images rule.
Where Variety got it right was in giving credit to the thoroughly entertaining turns of Dietrich's supporting ensemble: Warner Oland—familiar to Charlie Chan fans—in yet another despicable gem of yellowface; Eugene Pallette—with his signature gruff voice—as an American gambler among the passengers; Louise Closser Hale as a prim boarding housekeeper overly-protective of her infantilized pup; Gustav von Seyffertitz as a dope smuggling invalid; Lawrence Grant as a fanatical missionary; and Emile Chautard as a disgraced French officer wearing his uniform without authority. But I'm stunned that not a single word was written to honor Anna May Wong's performance as Dietrich's traveling companion Hui Fei; a role so crucial to getting the Shanghai Express back on schedule that I can't believe their heedless omission; an oversight rectified by Margarita Landazuri's essay for Turner Classic Movies, which includes cinematographer Lee Garmes's intriguing anecdote that von Sternberg acted out all the roles and insisted the actors imitate him. "His impersonation of Anna May Wong had us all in stitches," Garmes recalled, "But we didn't dare show our amusement."
Cross-published on Twitch.