Friday, October 7, 2011

Train in Vain

Film: Shanghai Express
Format: VHS from Genoa Public Library through interlibrary loan on big ol’ television.

There was a huge mystique around Marlene Dietrich in the early days of talkies. Part of this was undoubtedly her beauty, and part of this was her groovy accent. Shanghai Express puts both of these qualities to use, giving us a film that borders on 1930s racism and cultural insensitivity, mystery, war, and romance, as well as taking place almost entirely on a train and in train stations.

Captain Harvey (Clive Brook) is a medical doctor being sent to Shanghai by train to perform a delicate operation. He learns as he boards the train that the notorious Shanghai Lily (Dietrich) is on the train with him, but the name means nothing to him. Lily is known as a “coaster,” or a woman who lives by her wits on the China coast. In other words, she’s a courtesan. As it turns out, though, Harvey does know Lily, but knows her by another name. It seems they were something of an item about five years previous. She did something (it’s never said exactly what, although it’s hinted that she may have pretended to be with another man) to test him, and instead of confront her, he left. And this, plus many, many men, turned her into what she is—still beautiful, but now mercenary and not above selling her affections for some comfort.

Also on the train are a number of passengers including a German invalid who also smuggles heroin (Gustav von Seyffertitz), an inveterate gambler (Eugene Pallette), a dowdy woman who runs a boarding house (Louise Closser Hale), a stuffy preacher (Lawrence Grant), a Chinese courtesan who may or may not be traveling with Lily (Anna May Wong), A half-Chinese man of dubious past (Warner Oland), and a few others.

We learn pretty quickly that China is in the middle of a civil war. The train gets stopped at one point to search for a rebel agent, and he is removed from the train. Surrounding this incident is various levels of outrage from the passengers when they realize that the notorious Shanghai Lily is on the train with them. And, of course, Harvey deals with the fact that he might still be in love with Lily and she with him.

Then things take a turn for the dangerous. It turns out that the half-Chinese man is actually a higher-up in the rebel army, and he takes over the train and forces it to stop. The man removed from the train earlier was important to him, and he wants to arrange a trade for someone of equal value to the Chinese government. He also would like to spend a little time in Lily’s company, and asks her to come with him when his current mission is complete. She refuses, since she is undergoing something of a crisis of faith with the sudden return of Harvey in her life, a crisis both aided and damaged by the presence of the clergyman.

And, it turns out that Captain Harvey is just the man he is looking for. Harvey’s affront in coming to Lily’s defense at the man’s advances put Harvey in terrible danger, although he doesn’t know it. And to save him, Lily agrees to leave with him despite her rekindled affection for Harvey.

It’s actually a pretty good set-up. The danger is real, the reactions of the people are real, and Harvey is just enough of a stick-in-the-mud traditional upper crust Brit to not want to give in to his feelings for Lily. He’s been wronged by her, and he refuses to trust her anymore no matter what he is told, and this stubbornness is what turns the entire second half of the film. While it’s a bit predictable, it also tries for believable in these two characters and the way they are portrayed to us throughout the film.

But that’s really it. This is high melodrama in a lot of respects, the villain needing only to twist a mustache or two to get that Snidely Whiplash feel complete. More distressing is the fact that virtually everyone on the train has the survival instincts of a brain-addled lemming near a tall cliff. When the train is stopped by the rebels, for instance, it’s stopped thanks to a large machine gun that fires off for a good minute. Everyone we see on the train just keeps walking around like they’re listening to thunder and not like dozens of pieces of hot lead could come rattling through the windows at any moment.

My biggest problem, though, is that I just don’t buy the romance. Dietrich is gorgeous, if a bit overdressed, while Clive Brook is puffy, a bit doughy, and completely bland. He’s also a good bit older than she is. Dietrich was 31 when she made the film and Brook was well on his way to 50, meaning that in terms of characters, he was close a good third older than she was when their love affair started. The whole May-December thing probably played more in older films, or was at least a lot more common, and I could accept the idea that the 14-15 year difference here was relatively unimportant. And perhaps it is. But Captain Harvey is such a stick-in-the-mud, such a fussbudget, such a bland nothing, that I can’t see the vivacious Shanghai Lily seeing him for anything but another meal ticket and another sucker.

It took me awhile to find an actual copy of this film instead of internet video, and now I sort of wonder why I bothered. It’s interesting for what it is, but what it is isn’t that much.

Why to watch Shanghai Express: Marlene Dietrich at her sultry, foreign best.
Why not to watch: The romance is hard to buy.


  1. Josef Von Sternberg'e element was Black and White. I received a silent trio of his movies for Christmas with "Docks of New York" which was OK, "Underworld" which may have been the manual for the look of early gangster movies and the overlooked "The Last Command". I was more impressed by that movie than any of Sternberg's movies in THE BOOK.

  2. I haven't been able to locate Docks of New York yet, but I haven't really searched Hulu+ that thoroughly.

  3. Something really bothered me with this one and now that I read your review I can put a name to it. 1. the unbelievable romance and 2. the almost surreal behaviour of the other passengers. Realism is not a strong side of 30'ies movies but this is really bad.
    Is there a hint of The Stagecoach in the theme here?

    1. #2 there is more significant, I think. That's one of the biggest issues with older films is that almost complete detachment from reality in terms of behavior, attitude, and actions. It's not that uncommon with films of this era, and when I dislike an older film, it's often for that reason.