SHANGHAI EXPRESS —–“Why, confound it, sir. That’s Shanghai Lily. For the last fortnight, I’ve been attending a man who went out of his mind after spending every penny on her. And that’s not all I know. She’s wrecked a dozen men up and down the China coast.”
Money-wise the most successful of the seven exotic 1930s campfests director Josef von Sternberg made to showcase his star Marlene Dietrich, this adventure drama was the third most popular picture show of 1932. It grossed $6,900,000, something like $284,000,000 in 2020 bucks. When the Oscars rolled around, it was nominated for Best Picture and Sternberg for director, and won Lee Garmes a golden guy for his superb camera work.
Loosely based on an incident a decade earlier, as well as on a unpublished novel by Harry Hervey, Jules Furthman’s script was set in China in 1931, undergoing civil upheaval with assorted warlords rampaging across the land. A group of Anglo foreigners—British, American, French and German—on the express train from Peking to Shanghai are taken hostage by the army of warlord ‘Chang’ (Warner Oland) who they thought was just a fellow passenger. The motley group—gambler, opium dealer, missionary—includes a stiff-upper-lipped Brit officer (Clive Brook) who carries a torch for the most flamboyant dame on the train, ‘Madeline’, better known as renowned courtesan ‘Shanghai Lily’ (Dietrich), her insinuating face and form accented by an array of outfits complete with feathers and veils (Travis Banton’s costumes are a kick). She’s accompanied by inscrutable sister-in-trade maneater ‘Hui Fei’ (Anna May Wong). *
Chang is ruthless, as kidnapping bandits typically are, yet polite enough to couch his lust for Lily with “About two days’ journey from here into the interior, I have a palace waiting to be graced by your presence. Could I persuade you to accept my hospitality until such time as you should grow weary of me?”
Dietrich gets the glamour vamp treatment, Wong is intriguing, Brook is a wet log. Oland easily takes the acting honors. As with the other von Sternberg/Dietrich opuses, atmosphere is everything, and the imperious director laid it on here; according to Dietrich he was more responsible for the Oscar-winning cinematography than cameraman Garmes. Unaccredited, James Wong Howe also handled some of the visual chores.
“It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily“. On board expressing degrees of disgust with the situation, China, Lily and each other are Lawrence Grant, Eugene Pallette, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Louise Closer Hale and Emile Chautard.
* The germ of the story lay in something that happened in May of 1923, when a luxury express train running between Shanghai and Peking was seized by 1,200 bandits who held 300 hostages for ransom. Thirty of the prisoners were Westerners, mostly American and one was the sister-in-law of John D. Rockefeller Jr. That lady, Lucy Aldrich, was the aunt of future movie director Robert Aldrich. The incident was dubbed the “Lincheng Outrage”.
This was retweaked in two lesser items. Night Plane From Chungking, in 1943, gave Robert Preston a job and took advantage of WW2, using the Japanese instead of bandits. In 1951 Peking Express had Joseph Cotten tussle with Commies. In the first one (which sheds the train for a bus), Lil is now a Red Cross nurse played by Ellen Drew. In the latter Corinne Calvet turns her into a nightclub singer. Where’s a coast-plying, man-wrecking hooker with a snazz wardrobe when you need one?