“A shaft of white light used properly can be far more effective than all the color in the world used indiscriminately.”
– Josef von Sternberg (1)
Of all the delirious exoticisms created by Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg during their white-hot period in the 1930s at Paramount, Shanghai Express (1932) remains my favourite for many reasons. It’s a riotous exercise in excess in every area; the visuals are overpowering and sumptuous; the costumes ornate and extravagant; the sets a riot of fabrics, light and space; and all of it captured in the most delectable black-and-white cinematography that one can find anywhere, more than enough to convince even the most superficial viewer that when black-and-white ceased to be a commercially viable production medium, the world lost a true art form, which colour film – as Sternberg’s quote above suggests – can never hope to replace. There are some films that can exist only in black-and-white, and Shanghai Express is one of them; a world in which the unreal is real, the intangible tantalisingly within our reach, and where luxury and violence are inextricably linked in a narrative that is both preposterous and ineluctably real.
There’s a nominal plot, of course; a group of passengers are travelling through revolutionary-era Chinafrom Peking to Shanghai, thrown together by chance and circumstance in a train that may or may not make it to its designated destination. Along for the ride, aside from Dietrich as the notorious “coaster”, or prostitute Shanghai Lily, are, as Wikipedia notes,
Captain Donald “Doc” Harvey, a physician and military officer (Clive Brook), and a former lover of Shanghai Lily’s; along with “coaster” Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), zealous missionary Reverend Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), inveterate gambler Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette), opium dealer Eric Baum (Gustav von Seyffertitz), boarding house keeper Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale), French officer Major Lenard (Emile Chautard), and a mysterious Eurasian, Henry Chang (Warner Oland). (2)
Chang is in fact General Chang, the leader of a rebel faction hoping to take over the government, and he arranges to have his followers stop the train en route, taking the principal characters hostage. Discovering that Baum is an opium dealer, Chang tortures him with a hot branding iron before returning him to the train; later, Chang rapes Hui Fei, almost as a sort of perverse amusement, simply to demonstrate his seemingly unquestionable power. Of all of them, Chang decides that “Doc”Harvey will be the most useful to him, as Harvey is on his way to perform emergency surgery on the colonialist Governor General of Shanghai. Chang hopes to exchange Harvey for one of his own men, captured the previous evening, and the government readily capitulates.
But in the interim, Chang has attempted to force himself on Lily in-Harvey’s presence, and Harvey, enraged, impulsively knocks Chang down. Needless to say, Chang feels that he must be avenged, and threatens to blind Harvey before returning him to the British authorities. In response, because she still quite obviously loves him, Lily offers herself as Chang’s mistress to obtainHarvey’s freedom. At first convinced that Lily is doing this of her own free will,Harvey discovers from the Reverend that Lily is acting out of altruism alone, and indeed, has been up all night praying forHarvey’s deliverance from bondage.
At the same time, Hui Fei surreptitiously leaves the train, and armed with a dagger, sneaks into Chang’s lair, and kills the rebel leader with several well-aimed thrusts of its blade. Harvey rescues Lily from Chang’s clutches, and the entire party depart for Shanghai, arriving late but little the worse for the wear – except for Baum and Hui Fei – for their ordeal. But Hui Fei, at least, has been avenged, and furthermore will collect a handsome reward from the Colonial authorities for killing Chang. Lily and “Doc” Harvey are reconciled, and vow to forget the past; the film thus ends on a hopeful note of personal redemption.
None of this is even remotely believable, and that’s precisely the point. Shanghai Express is part of von Sternberg’s world – not the real world – created for our visual and sensual delectation. We’re just visiting for the duration of the film, and we’re never allowed to escape from the insularity and hermetic compactness of his cinematic vision; this is a dream, and we’re part of it. In this fourth of seven collaborations between von Sternberg and Dietrich, Jules Furthman’s script, from a story by Harry Hervey, is the very least of the film’s priorities. Although it clocks in at a relatively economical 80 minutes, the film seems languorous, eternal, a fever from which no one will ever awake, stitched together with the most extended lap dissolves I’ve ever seen in a commercial film, running as long as 256 frames and even longer, as one scene drifts into another in a haze of flesh tones, gauzes, and heavily filtered chiaroscuro photography. And, as always, Sternberg took his own sweet time in shooting the film, allowing absolutely no front office interference; the film was in production from August to November 1931, an extremely luxurious shooting schedule.
Shanghai Express justifiably won the gifted Lee Garmes an Academy Award for his work as Director of Cinematography, and Garmes’ uncredited assistant, James Wong Howe, soon to become a major cinematographer in his own right, also fits in perfectly in constructing the visual design of the project. Shanghai Express seems to exist entirely in zones of light that transfix the protagonists, who become instantly read iconographs (luxury, desire, Orientalism) within the universe they inhabit. The visuals of the film ultimately overpower the narrative, and simultaneously become part of it, as if both the characters and their world are inextricably intertwined with Sternberg’s sumptuous, unrelenting lavish design for Shanghai Express. The film was also nominated, but did not win, for the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars – Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel (1932) winning the former and Frank Borzage the latter for the now largely forgotten Bad Girl (1931). Surprisingly, Dietrich wasn’t even nominated for Best Actress.
Warner Oland’s “race drag” performance as Chang prefigures his many later appearances as Charlie Chan; and Eugene Pallette’s abrasive Sam Salt’s unending series of racist comments further underline the film’s interest in examining the questions of race and colonialism that swirl around the film’s seductive images. The use, too, of hundreds of Asian-Americans as extras and bit players in the film’s numerous crowd scenes adds to the peculiar bifurcation of the film’s view of race; most of the respectable “white” characters in the film are seen as both flawed and racist, and only Dietrich, Wong, and to some extent “Doc” Harvey, have any real moral agency.
The film is also surprisingly feminist; in all of Sternberg’s work with Dietrich she is almost always portrayed as a strong, dominating presence, but here, Anna May Wong’s character is – for a refreshing change – seen as Dietrich’s equal in the eye of the both the film’s protagonists, and Sternberg’s narrative vision of the film. Though both may be ladies of ill repute, they are presented almost as sisters, sharing the same compartment, playing hot jazz on a windup portable phonograph, and displaying equal contempt for the film’s men, who are seen as either prigs or fools. When Hui Fei returns to the train after being raped by Chang, it is Lily who stops her from committing suicide, grabbing a knife out of her hand – the same one she will later use to kill Chang – and admonishing her: “don’t do anything foolish”.
This is the visual terrain of Shanghai Express. It’s a place that exists only in the mind of Sternberg and the eye of the beholder; for the duration of the film we’re all passengers, bound for an uncertain destination. And remember, too, that one on Sternberg’s favourite maxims was that “[t]he only way to succeed is to make people hate you. That way, they remember you.” (3) Like all of Sternberg’s work, Shanghai Express is an entirely personal project over which the director had almost complete control; that the film made money was almost immaterial to the director, though certainly not to Adolph Zukor, the head of Paramount.
But in the Pre-Code era, before the Hays/Breen Office clamped down on precisely the sort of moral ambiguity that Shanghai Express displays, Sternberg’s dictatorial approach to the cinema – my way or the highway – resulted in a string of artistic and box-office triumphs. The film was a huge hit with the public, grossing $3,700,000 US in its initial engagements in the United States alone. That’s in 1932 dollars; adjusted for inflation, that’s more than $55 million today. So, here’s a film that has it both ways; a completely personal vision that nevertheless struck a reverberating chord with a public desperate to escape the darkest days of the Depression for a world of fantasy and romance, exoticism and danger. This, for me at least, is Sternberg’s most resonant film, and one that I doubt you’ll forget. All aboard, then, for the Shanghai Express!
- Josef von Sternberg, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, Mercury House, San Francisco, 1988, p. 325.
- “Shanghai Express”, Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanghai_Express_(film).
- John Baxter, The Cinema of Josef von Sternberg, Zwemmer, London, 1971, p. 24.
Shanghai Express (1932 USA 80 mins)
Prod Co: Paramount Dir: Josef von Sternberg Scr: Jules Furthman, based on the story by Harry Hervey Phot: Lee Garmes, [James Wong Howe] Ed: Frank Sullivan Art Dir: Hans Dreier Mus: W. Franke Harling
Cast: Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook, Anna May Wong, Warner Oland, Eugenne Pallette, Lawrence Grant, Gustav von Seyffertitz