It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.
Von Sternberg went to Shanghai, in order to research this movie. He described his experiences in a book called Fun in a Chinese Laundry.
Weird chap, that von Sternberg guy.
The story is set on the Shanghai-Beijing Express, in the thirties, as was and revolution rage across China.
But war and revolution are not as shocking, for the travelers on this train, than the presence among them of notorious prostitute Shanghai Lil.
Then one of them finds out she’s his former girlfriend.
Now, two things.
First – your girlfriend was Marlene Dietrich and you dumped her? You must be crazy.
Second – former-girlfriends-turned-hookers seemed a standard in von Sternberg’s movies: something similar happens also in The Shanghai Gesture. And they take to it with a certain gusto, and no small personal accomplishment. Weird chap, that von Sternberg guy.
Von Sternberg, helped according to some sources by Howard Hawks, plays with exoticism and turns a pretty basic plot (strangers on a train, war, a life in danger, an old love) into something much quirkier.
The characters are drawn like cartoons, with some extra spicing thrown in. The Hays Commission caused no end of trouble, but a lot of the racier bits are still in the final print. Granted, the Eurasian characters comes across as the worst scumbag of the lot, but let’s be serious: nobody’s clean on this train.
In the end we get intrigue, rape, homicide and a final solution that sees the triumph of true love.
So, ok, the plot’s nothing to write home about, but that’s unimportant – this is more a painting than a movie.
The black and white photography is incredible, and the two female leads are ravishing.
This is Marlene Dietrich’s movie – and if you want to fully understand the Dietrich myth, you must watch her shot by von Sternberg. Her Shanghai Lily is cynical and insouciant, but she’s also almost too glamorous to watch in the naked eye.
Her companion and colleague is played by Anna May Wong, probably the most famous Chinese-American actress of all time, a true icon.
The cast is completed by Clive Brook as the man who dumped Dietrich (fool!) leading her to a life of sin, and by Warner Oland, a Dutch actor that specialized in playing Chinese characters, and would become very popular portraying Charlie Chan on screen.
The action is linear as it happens on all movies set on trains – and the basic premise of Shanghai Express has been reprised in countless movies and TV shows.
Here, von Sternberg designs the sets, using the places, and not only the characters, to tell his story.
This was the highest grossing movie of 1932, it got very poor reviews, and it won an Oscar for its cinematography (again, probably done by von Sternberg personally); it was banned in China for its portrayal of Chinese politics.
Researching this piece, I discovered a curious coincidence: the extras in the movie speak Cantonese, instead of the more geographically correct Mandarin; this was due to the fact that all the extras were recruited in the Los Angeles area, and were from Cantonese speakers.
Curiously enough, the Cantonese-in-Shanghai bit has also been pointed out in my novel by one of my editors. But I can’t claim a good reason for it like von Sternberg’s – mine was just a blunder.