ClassicFlix (Teen Scene) – Review #11: Shanghai Express (1932)

From March 2015 to April 2017, I was writing the monthly Teen Scene column for the website ClassicFlix. My objective was to promote classic films among teenagers and young adults. Due to the establishing of a new version of the website, it’s now more difficult to access to the old version and read the reviews. But, I’m allowed to publish my reviews on my blog 30 days after they had been published on ClassicFlix! So, I decided to do so as you could have an easy access to them. If you are not a teenager, it doesn’t matter! I’m sure you can enjoy them just the same! My eleventh review was for the 1932’s classic Shanghai Express directed by Josef von Sternberg. Enjoy!

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We will explore a particularly thrilling type of film: those who take place on a train for this month’s Teen Scene column. Alfred Hitchcock was a master at it; one of his best examples is The Lady Vanishes, but he wasn’t the only one. Today we go back to the ’30s with an American film directed in 1932 by Josef von Sternberg, an Austrian-Hungarian movie maker: Shanghai Express.

The film impressed with its multicultural diversity and actors from various different countries (Germany, United Kingdom, China, and United States): Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook, Anna May Wong, Eugene Pallette, Warner Oland, Lawrence Grant, Gustav Von Seyffertitz, Louise Closser Hale (also an author) and Emile Chautard.

Shanghai Express takes place in China in 1931 where the country is under civil war. A group of people leaves from Beijing to go to Shanghai by train, the Shanghai Express of the title. Among them are Captain Donald “Doc” Harvey (Brook); Magdalen, aka “Shanghai Lily,” an actress (Dietrich); Hui Fei, a Chinese girl (Wong); Mr. Carmichael, a Christian missionary (Grant); Sam Salt, a gambler (Pallette); Eric Baum, an opium leader (Seyffertitz); Mrs. Haggerty, a boarding house keeper (Hale); Major Lenard, a French officer who can only speak his native language (Chautard) and Henry Chang, an Eurasian (Oland).

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Magdalen and Doc were one-time lovers and it’s the first time they’ve seen each other since five years, but they still love each other without realizing it. The trip starts without any particular stories, until the rebels stop the train and each passenger is questioned. They discover one of the passengers is a traitor belonging to the revolutionary movement. What will happen to them?

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When we see films like this one, we realize a story doesn’t have to be set in various places to be exciting. Simplicity is sometimes much better, adding a certain tension to the story knowing the characters are prisoners of this train; they can’t go very far if a problem happens. It becomes a sort of “behind closed doors” film and people don’t have the choice of interacting with each other.

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And it’s indeed those interactions between the characters that make the film truly interesting. At some point, the oppositions add a certain sense of fun in this drama. As an example, Sam Salt and Major Lenard can’t understand each other because one speaks only English and the other one speaks only French.

When we think about the characters, it leads us to their performers. Here, Marlene Dietrich gives us one of her best acting performances with her sincerity and class. Her interactions with the other characters and her sense of charm are a real fascination. We see, through her character, that she is a strong woman.

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The presence of Anna May Wong adds a lot to the film. She’s discrete, but impossible to forget.

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Shanghai Express also includes a bunch of great character actors. Eugene Pallette is often cited as a favorite, and how can we forget Louise Closser Hale’s performance as someone far too obsessed with her dog? Of course, in those films where the action is restricted to a limited place, we are looking for great actor quality, as we seem to be closer to them.

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We also have to praise Shanghai Express for its technical aspects. The cinematography is memorable, as much for the camera movements and shots as for the image itself. One of the best examples for its quality is the scene when Marlene Dietrich prays in her wagon cabin in the dark, but a light emphasizes her faces and her hands. The contrast between her pale skin and the darkness is stunning, accentuating the traits of her beauty and adding intensity and a strong signification to the scene.

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Another element that impresses the eyes is the beautiful gowns designed by Travis Banton (Letter from an Unknown Woman). We are in real admiration of Marlene Dietrich’s rich and elaborate outfits, just like we are for Anna May Wong’s elegant kimonos.

It goes without saying Shanghai Express is a film to see for its award wins and nomination.Shanghai Express won the Oscar for Best Cinematography and was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, and was also the top grossing film in the USA and Canada in 1932.

If you’re looking for a visually stimulating film and an entertaining story embodied by some talented actors, I highly recommend Shanghai Express. The first time I saw this film, it was in class and the students applauded at the end which gives us proof that this film can mesmerize many generations.

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