Filmsite Movie Review
Shanghai Express (1932)
Pages: (1)
Background

Shanghai Express (1932) is a thrilling and stylish adventure film - one of the best-remembered films of Marlene Dietrich. It was the fourth of seven films the actress made with director Josef von Sternberg:

The last six films of the Dietrich/Von Sternberg collaboration were made in Hollywood at Paramount Studios. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director), and was recognized for its exotic visual design (with an Academy Award win for Best Cinematography (Lee Garmes)).

It became Dietrich's biggest US box-office hit, taking in a record amount of $3.7 million for Paramount. It was remade as Night Plane from Chungking (1943) and as Peking Express (1951).

The Story

In the opening scene, a 'Shanghai Express' train was being boarded and loaded with baggage at the bustling Peking Railroad Station. It was traveling from Peiping (Peking) to Shanghai as an internal civil war raged through embattled China in the year 1931. There were many passengers of various and different backgrounds who were boarding into the first-class compartments, comprising the main principals of the film (including two 'fallen women'):

  • Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), an Eurasian (but American-bred) prostitute, with a suspect background, who appeared to be running away
  • Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich), a European lady also with a questionable reputation (a "courtesan")
  • Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brook), a stalwart British medical doctor on a mission to operate on the Governor-General of Shanghai
  • Reverend Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), a fervent Christian missionary, judgmental and impatient
  • Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale), a boardinghouse-keeper in Shanghai
  • Henry Chang (Warner Oland), a mysterious Eurasian merchant, actually a cruel war lord and Commander-in-Chief of revolutionary, rebel troops of soldiers
  • Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette), an American gambler
  • Eric Baum (Gustav von Seyffertitz), a German invalid masquerading as a coal banker - who was actually an opium dealer
  • Major Lenard (Emile Chautard), a uniformed French officer, although disgraced and removed from military service

One of the lady passengers on the train was notorious adventuress Shanghai Lily. She was dressed in black with a veil, and was known as a "notorious coaster...a woman who lives by her wits along the China coast" - for illicit purposes. Further close-ups (with keylighting on her face or backlighting) showed her stunning persona and mystique, filmed with expressionistic shadows.

Also in the film's opening, framed by two windows, and standing side-by-side on the train to become reacquainted, the flirtatious and seemingly-dangerous 'Shanghai Lily' (aka Magdalen) was reunited with her long-lost former lover - uniformed British Medical Corps surgeon Captain Donald 'Doc' Harvey after five years and four weeks apart. Captain Harvey was on a mission to perform brain surgery on the Governor-General of Shanghai, to remedy a blood clot.

The Captain complimented Shanghai Lily's beauty: "You've changed a lot...You're more beautiful than ever." She then went on to say that she now had a new life and a new name: "Well, Doc, I've changed my name" - when he asked if her name change was due to marriage (not aware of her reputation as a glamorous prostitute and tempting seductress), she continued with her most memorable line: "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily."

Dr. Harvey: Magdalen.
Shanghai Lily: Well, doctor, I haven't seen you in a long time. (They shake hands). You haven't changed at all, doctor.
Dr. Harvey: Well, you've changed a lot, Magdalen. [Note: Marlene Dietrich's real middle name was Magdalene.]
Shanghai Lily: Have I, Doc? Do you mind me calling you Doc, or must I be more respectful?
Dr. Harvey: You never were respectful, and you always did call me Doc. I didn't think I'd ever run into you again.
Shanghai Lily: Have you thought of me much, Doc?
Dr. Harvey: Let's see. Exactly how long has it been.
Shanghai Lily: Five years and four weeks.
Dr. Harvey: Well, for five years and four weeks, I've heard of nothing else.
Shanghai Lily: You were always polite, Doc. You haven't changed a bit.
Dr. Harvey: You have, Magdalen. You've changed a lot.
Shanghai Lily: Have I lost my look?
Dr. Harvey: No, you're more beautiful than ever.
Shanghai Lily: How have I changed?
Dr. Harvey: You know, I wish I could describe it.
Shanghai Lily: Well, Doc, I've changed my name.
Dr. Harvey: Married?
Shanghai Lily: No. It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.
Dr. Harvey: So you're Shanghai Lily.
Shanghai Lily: The notorious White Flower of China. You've heard of me, and you always believe what you've heard.
Dr. Harvey: And I still do. You see, I haven't changed at all.

He was astonished: "So you're Shanghai Lily!" - she added a sub-title: "the notorious white flower of China."

One of the train's passengers, Reverend Carmichael complained to fellow passenger Dr. Donald Harvey about the loose women traveling on the train: "Well, sir, I suppose every train carries its cargo of sin, but this train is burdened with more than its share!" He criticized two of the passengers in particular: "One of them is yellow, and the other one is white - but both their souls are rotten." He also asserted: "Any man with half an eye should be able to see that those two women are riding this train in search of victims." He also claimed that Shanghai Lily's seduction made one man go insane and that she had an awful reputation: "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." Doc Harvey responded by criticizing the Reverend's prejudices and condemnations:

You interest me, Mr. Carmichael. I'm not exactly irreligous, but, being a physician, I sometimes wonder how a man like you can locate a soul and, having located it, diagnose its condition as rotten.

Another passenger traveling on the train, mysterious Eurasian merchant Henry Chang - in actuality a warlord rebel leader - off-handedly warned the Reverend about how anything could happen in the embattled country: "You're in China now, sir, where time and life have no value," as the train paused to remove a cow feeding her calf in the middle of the tracks. During the journey, Chang became angered over Chinese Army government soldiers who boarded the train to examine passports, and arrested one of his top high-ranking aides, a spy named Li Fung (Neshida Minoru). Chang secretly sent a coded message via a telegraph office, to alert his troops to halt and hijack the train at Te-Shan in the middle of the night.

Chang revealed his heritage to American gambler Sam Salt - he had a mixed parentage with a white father and Chinese mother ("My mother was Chinese. My father was white....I'm not proud of my white blood"). Salt replied: "What future is there being a Chinaman? You're born, eat your way through a handful of rice, and you die. What a country! Let's have a drink."

During a rendezvous in the observation deck, 'Doc' and Lily talked about their past relationship when she had acted to make him jealous - and lost him: "You left me without a word purely because I indulged in a woman's trick to make you - jealous. I wanted to be certain that you loved me. Instead, I lost you. I suffered quite a bit and I probably deserved it." Doc had left her out of jealousy and was still repelled by her lifestyle, but retained a lingering love for her. He revealed his continuing affection for her when she noticed his watch where he kept a picture of her inside.

He was concerned about her loose reputation since they had broken up years earlier: "I was a fool to let you go out of my life. (He kissed her) I wish you could tell me there'd been no other men" - she responded: "I wish I could 'Doc', but five years in China is a long time." He wished they could have their five lost years back, and imagined what would have happened if they had not parted ways: "We'd have gone back to England, married and been very happy. There are a lot of things I wouldn't have done if I had those five years to live all over again." He was still very distrusting and ambivalent towards her, however, and she was confused by his new-found attentiveness to her: "Will you never learn to believe without proof?...When I needed your faith, you withheld it. And now when I don't need it and don't deserve it, you give it to me."

At midnight, Chang's revolutionary rebel army ambushed and attacked the train when it stopped to take on water. The soldiers killed the government troops, and then he took hostages, including Captain Harvey as his prized ransom, to be exchanged for his arrested "right hand" top-ranking aide. Hui Fei recognized Chang as the revolutionary's Commander-in-Chief with a $20,000 dollar reward offered for his capture ("alive or dead").

Chang also propositioned Shanghai Lily to join him at his palace in the interior of China as his mistress, but she refused, citing that she was "reformed." To defend her when Chang forced himself on her, Captain Harvey broke into the room, punched Chang in the face and knocked him down to the floor. That evening, Chang also raped Hui Fei, a Chinese 'coaster' prostitute like Shanghai Lily, and kept her imprisoned for the night.

Unbeknownst to the doctor and at the Reverend's urging, Shanghai Lily prayed for the Captain's release. The next morning, Division Superintendent Albright (Claude King) of the British Legation arrived by train with Li Fung for the prisoner swap. When Lily protested that she loved the Captain, Chang threatened to blind him for his insolence, to force Lily to accompany him back to the palace. To insure Harvey's unharmed and safe release, Lily offered and sacrificed herself to the warlord, with her "word of honor" - and decided of her own "free will" to accompany Chang.

The wronged Hui Fei, angry over being raped earlier by the rebel leader, snuck into Chang's quarters and vengefully stabbed him to death in the back as he was packing. Hui Fei then informed Captain Harvey about the murder and told him to retrieve Lily. Harvey rescued Lily before Chang's body was discovered, and they were able to return to the train before its departure. Hui Fe fortuitously freed the Shanghai Express and all its captives to continue their journey - with arrival four hours late in Shanghai.

Upon their arrival, Hui Fei was to receive the $20,000 reward for Chang's demise, and Reverend Carmichael had commended Lily for her sacrifice. He tried to convince Captain Harvey of Lily's good and honorable intentions in offering herself to go with the warlord, since she had prayed all night for his release. However, he was initially doubtful and unconvinced.

In the conclusion, Captain Harvey and Shanghai Lily were reconciled to each other when he spied Lily buying him a new replacement watch in a train station shop. He finally relented, asked her to forgive him for his lack of faith in her, reaffirmed his faith in her, and asked for "another chance for a new start" - a rekindling of their relationship from the past:

'Doc': What good is a watch without you? (She attached the watch to his left wrist)
Shanghai Lily: I wish I could replace everything else, too. Goodbye, Donald.
'Doc': I'm not going to let you out of my life again, Magdalen, when everything else has become so unimportant. I don't care if you were going to leave with him or not. I don't care in the least. All I want is another chance for a new start. I'll be different. You'll never have any cause for regret. Please forgive me for my lack of faith. Please do. I know I've no right to ask you even to listen to me.
Shanghai Lily: It's very easy to listen to you, Donald. You know I love you. I always have and I always will.
'Doc': I don't deserve that. I know I behaved badly.
Shanghai Lily: Perhaps it was my fault. I should have told you everything.
'Doc': There's only one thing I want you to tell me, Magdalen.
Shanghai Lily: What's that?
'Doc': How in the name of Confucius can I kiss you with all these people around?
Shanghai Lily: But, Donald, there's no one here but you and I. Besides, many lovers come to railroad stations to kiss without attracting attention.

The film ended on their curtain-closing embrace and kiss on the crowded Shanghai station platform - he looked around, then assisted her in putting her arms around him.