Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s post is the latest addition to our list of Pre-Code Essentials — the films you absolutely can’t miss. Each of these entries, which will come once or twice a month, are designed fill out my choices for the most important films of Pre-Code Hollywood. Here’s the updated list of Jackson’s Pre-Code Essentials.
39. Shanghai Express (1932)
A beautiful temptress re-kindles an old romance while trying to escape her past during a tension-packed train journey. Starring Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook, Anna May Wong, Warner Oland, and Eugene Pallette. Based on the story by Harry Hervey. Screenplay by Jules Furthman. Directed by Josef von Sternberg. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.
“In 1931, as the Chinese Civil War rages, Captain Donald Harvey, a physician known as “Doc,” meets his long-lost love, now known as Shanghai Lily, as they board the Shanghai Express in the Peking railroad station. Lily is a notorious “coaster,” a woman who, while not a professional prostitute, lives by her feminine wits along the China coast. While the train is stopped, the passengers are searched by soldiers of the Chinese Army, and a spy is arrested. Fellow passenger Henry Chang surreptitiously sends a telegram to rebel troops commanding them to hijack the train at midnight. Traveling once again, Lily and Donald rekindle their love, but Donald is repelled by the life Lily has been leading. When the train is accosted by the rebels and Chang interrogates the first-class passengers, they realize that he is commander-in-chief of the rebel army. Donald informs Chang of the urgency of his trip to Shanghai, where he is expected to perform brain surgery on the governor-general.
“Chang holds Donald hostage, and only agrees to release him if the British Legation returns his spy to him the next morning. Chang propositions Lily, but she says she has reformed. When Chang forces himself on her, Donald breaks in and knocks him down. That evening, Chang rapes Hui Fei, also a coaster, and keeps her imprisoned for the night. Chang’s spy is returned to him, but he continues to hold Donald, threatening to blind him until Lily offers to accompany Chang back to his palace in exchange for leaving Donald unharmed. Hui Fei stabs Chang to death as retribution, and the train and its passengers finally complete their journey to Shanghai. Dr. Carmichael, doctor of divinity, commends Lily for her sacrifice and tries to convince Donald of her honor, but Donald refuses to believe him. When Donald sees Lily buying a watch for him to replace the one he had lost, however, he begs her forgiveness and they embrace in the crowded station.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
One of my biggest regrets in cutting Film Fridays from our regular rotation was that we never got around to our series on the Pre-Code works of Marlene Dietrich, one of the most important actresses of the era. Often compared to MGM’s Garbo for her exotic sensibilities, Paramount’s Dietrich is actually an entity entirely unto herself; while Garbo often wallows in melodrama, Dietrich makes it a habit to wink. That is, there’s a sense of humor, camp even, about her performances, for even during the most serious of circumstances, she’s always ready to give the audience a taste of her surprising self-awareness, as if to let us know that she knows “it’s only a show.” Oddly enough, that’s what makes her onscreen persona so intoxicating. But this behind-the-character existence is nevertheless balanced by a commitment towards making magic, which for this actress involves exuding a sexual sincerity that can only be fully realized in the frank films produced during the years before the enforcement of the Production Code. In short, Dietrich’s a majestic performer for whom I have tremendous respect — a trailblazer and an icon — and I’m thrilled she’s finally making her debut on That’s Entertainment!
This persona is perhaps at its zenith during Shanghai Express, an extraordinary Pre-Code tale about a whore who reunites with an old flame on a train that’s hijacked by Chinese rebels. After rebuffing Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily due to her scandalous proclivities, her ex-beau, played by the dependable Clive Brook, is moved by both her sacrifice and the depth of her feeling, and the couple reunites in the final reel. But the film doesn’t chart the whore’s journey to redemption; the film charts the good guy’s journey to accepting the whore for who she is, and loving her in spite of everything else. Talk about a Pre-Code sentiment: there’s no barometer to determine judgments on morality, just the simple fact that real connections have to overcome obstacles — the past, the present, whatever — and this is the only viable way romance and sexuality can exist within the modern era. Of course, there are also propositions, murders, and double entendres throughout, as if the film’s Pre-Code standing wasn’t obvious from the start. It’s pure salacity from beginning to end — not dirty (it’s much more clever than all that) — but certainly the kind of material that would be neutered under censorship (and it was remade twice under the Code, go figure).
Ultimately Dietrich and the honest story make this film indelible, but there are two other facets worth mentioning. The first is the appearance of Anna May Wong, an Asian ’30s screen star who plays Lily’s droll and habit-sharing sidekick. The other is the impressive visuals, thanks to both regular Dietrich director Sternberg and Academy Award-winning cinematographer Lee Garmes. In fact, this film is one of the most beautifully photographed Pre-Code films I’ve ever seen — exquisite setups, melodious pacing, and revolutionary movements. More than just a naughty narrative and a strong vehicle for a divine star, Shanghai Express is a masterwork of American filmmaking. And that’s why it’s recommended to everyone, fans of the Pre-Code era and fans of the cinema in general. It’s a work every film lover should see: an essential.
(And stay tuned for more Dietrich here before the year is out…)
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical!