Shanghai Express

Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay: Jules Furthman (based on the story by Harry Hervey)
Stars: Marlene Dietrich (Shanghai Lily), Clive Brook (Captain Donald Harvey), Anna May Wong (Hui Fei), Warner Oland (Henry Chang), Eugene Pallette (Sam Salt), Lawrence Grant (Mr. Carmichael), Louise Closser Hale (Mrs. Haggerty), Gustav von Seyffertitz (Eric Baum), Emile Chautard (Major Lenard)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1932
Country: U.S.
Shanghai Express Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express is a marvelous cinematic fantasy, easily the best of the six films he produced with star Marlene Dietrich for Paramount between 1930 and 1935. The film embodies in the best possible way von Sternberg’s artistic strengths and Dietrich’s unique screen persona, intertwining the two such that it is impossible to untangle them. Their previous Hollywood efforts, Morocco (1930) and Dishonored (1931), are highly watchable confections, but they don’t have quite the seamless blend of cinematic fantasy, narrative intrigue, and baroque visual excess embodied in Shanghai Express.

The story takes place primarily aboard the titular train, which is running between Peking and Shanghai during the long-running Chinese civil war. The passengers are a motley assortment of various nationalities and personalities, with the two central characters being Dietrich’s notorious Shanghai Lily, a so-called “coaster” who has survived over the previous five years by working her way from man to man along the Chinese coast, and Donald Harvey (Clive Brook), a forthright physician and captain in the British military who was once romantically involved with Lily and has been unable to forget her (he still carries with him the pocket-watch she gave him). Lily is sharing a cabin with Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), a fellow “coaster,” while Donald finds himself surrounded by Henry Chang (Warner Oland), a mixed-race Chinese businessman; Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette), a gravel-voiced American; Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale), a fussy Englishwoman; and Mr. Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), a stern missionary. Captain Harvey is still clearly in love with Lily and she with him, but there is all manner of emotional baggage and bad memories, not to mention social taint, standing between them (unlike Morocco, where Dietrich never really generated much screen heat with Gary Cooper, she and Brook have real chemistry).

The story takes a sharp turn in its second half when the train is stopped by revolutionaries who want to hold Captain Harvey hostage in return for one of their top men, who was taken off the train the previous night by government soldiers. The leader of the revolutionaries is attracted to Lily, and Captain Harvey puts himself in a bad situation when he stands up for her honor and is then detained with the threat of having his eyes gouged out (“I said I’d return him, but not in what condition,” the revolutionary leader sneers). Thus, just as she did in Dishonored and, to some extent, in Morocco, Dietrich’s character must become a female martyr, secretly sacrificing herself for a greater love and, in the process, redeeming herself. One of Shanghai Express’ most memorable images is of Lily intensely praying in the darkness for Harvey, a moment of profound emotional expression that sheds away all the camp and irony that hangs so heavy over so much of von Stenberg’s work. It’s an unironic moment of real emotional gravity.

Like all of von Sternberg’s films of this period, Shanghai Express is first and foremost a visual tour de force of cinematography and production design. Von Sternberg’s obsession with filling the frame is aided and abetted by the film’s limited physical confines in either the train or the headquarters of the revolutionaries. It is a staged affair, a manufactured world of self-conscious artifice that vaguely reflects some pipe dream of the real China, but is primarily a fantastical evocation of an exotic otherworld poured forth from the fevered minds of the film’s producers. The uncredited production design was by the prolific German émigré Hans Dreier, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Morocco two years earlier, the second of his eventual 20 nominations; he went on to win three Oscars, two of which he won in the same year for Sunset Blvd. (1950) and Samson and Delilah (1949), back when the Academy gave separate awards for work in black and white and color. We get glimpses of the “real” China moving in the background through the train windows (plates that were shot on location), but otherwise Shanghai Express takes place entirely in its own world, unfolding like a romantic fever dream against a backdrop of political intrigue and violence.

Shanghai Express Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Dietrich & Von Sternberg in HollywoodShanghai Express is available exclusively as part of the Criterion Collection’s “Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood” boxset, which also includes Morocco (1930), Dishonored (1931), Blonde Venus (1932), The Scarlet Empress (1934), and The Devil Is a Woman (1935).
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • New interviews with film scholars Janet Bergstrom and Homay King; director Josef von Sternberg’s son, Nicholas; Deutsche Kinemathek curator Silke Ronneburg; and costume designer and historian Deborah Nadoolman Landis
  • New documentary about actor Marlene Dietrich’s German origins, featuring film scholars Gerd Gemünden and Noah Isenberg
  • New documentary on Dietrich’s status as a feminist icon, featuring film scholars Mary Desjardins, Amy Lawrence, and Patricia White
  • The Legionnaire and the Lady, a 1936 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of Morocco, featuring Dietrich and actor Clark Gable
  • New video essay by critics Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin
  • The Fashion Side of Hollywood, a 1935 publicity short featuring Dietrich and costume designer Travis Banton
  • Television interview with Dietrich from 1971
  • Insert book featuring essays by critics Imogen Sara Smith, Gary Giddins, and Farran Smith Nehme
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJuly 3, 2018

    Calling Criterion’s Dietrich & Von Sternberg in Hollywood a major release doesn’t quite do it justice, as the set pulls together six major films that represent the near entirety of one of the most important, fascinating, and influential director-actor collaborations in film history. Not only does the Criterion boxset include all six of the films Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg made together during their years working for Paramount (the only exclusion is 1930’s The Blue Angel, which was a German production distributed in the U.S. by Paramount), but there is a host of extras that contextualize the films historically and aesthetically and help us better appreciate the artistry of Dietrich and von Sternberg.

    In terms of sound and image, all six films are in the best condition they’ve ever been in on home video. Given that all of the films were made between 1930 and 1935, they certainly reflect the style and quality of filmstock, cameras, and sound recording technologies at that time, which is how it should be. Morocco and Dishonored, both of which were early synchronized sound films, are both presented in their proper 1.19:1 aspect ratio, which reflects the compromise made at the time to use the silent-era parameters of 35mm film stock and take away from of the image to make room for the optical soundtrack. The other four films are presented in their 1.33:1 or 1.37:1 Academy aspect ratio. Morocco was transferred in 2K from a 35mm safety fine-grain held by the UCLA Film & Television Archive; Dishonored, Blonde Venus, and The Scarlet Empress were all transferred in 4K from 35mm nitrate prints held by the UCLA Film & Television Archive; Shanghai Express was transferred in 4K from a 35mm duplicate negative and a composite fine-grain print by Universal Pictures; and The Devil Is a Woman was also transferred in 4K from a 35mm safety duplicate negative. Extensive digital restoration was performed on all six films, leaving them as clean and blemish-free as one could possibly expect. The image quality of the films gradually improves with each one, not necessarily because of the transfers, but because of the improvements in film stock and the slightly increased resolution of the later sound films. Morocco definitely looks the softest and the grainiest, while the later films have a much sharper appearance, with stronger contrast and finer detail, albeit with plenty of film grain still present. Criterion had previously released The Scarlet Empress on DVD, and the comparison between that transfer and the new one is substantial, with the new high-definition presentation bearing remarkably better depth and detail and with none of the visible wear and tear of the earlier transfer. Like the image quality, the sound quality of each film is very good, although representative of the technological limitations of the time. The monaural soundtrack for Morocco was mastered from a 35mm safety fine-grain; Dishonored, Blonde Venus, and The Scarlet Empress’s soundtracks were mastered from their respective 35mm nitrate prints, while The Devil Is a Woman track was mastered from a 35mm soundtrack positive. And, finally, Shanghai Express’s soundtrack was mastered and restored by Universal from a 35mm optical soundtrack negative.

    The supplements, which together comprise hours of material, are scattered across the six discs. The Morocco disc features “Weimar on the Pacific” (30 min.), a detailed featurette about Dietrich’s German origins that features interviews with film scholars Gerd Gemünden and Noah Isenberg; “Crazy Love,” a 31-minute interview with film scholar Janet Bergstrom about Morocco’s production and reception; “The Real Amy Jolly” (20 min.), an interview with Deutsche Kinemathek curator Silke Ronneburg (who shows up in another featurette on the Blonde Venus disc) about the real-life woman on whom the Dietrich character is based; and “The Legionnaire and the Lady,” a 60-minute Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of Morocco from 1936 that features Dietrich reprising her role and Clark Gable standing in for Gary Cooper. The Dishonored disc includes “Bodies and Spaces, Fabric and Light” (30 min.), an absolutely fascinating video essay by film scholars Cristina Alvarez Lopez and Adrian Martin about von Sternberg’s unique visual style; “Dietrich Icon” (20 min.), a featurette in which film scholars Mary Desjardine, Amy Lawrence, and Patricia White discuss how Dietrich became a complex and subversive Hollywood icon in her collaboration with von Sternberg; and a video interview with von Sternberg’s son, Nicholas, from 2014. The Shanghai Express disc includes only one supplement, but it is a great one: a 23-minute interview with film scholar Homay King, author of Lost in Translation: Orientalism, Cinema, and the Enigmatic Signifier, about the film’s complicated and, in some regards, regressive depiction of the “exotic” East. The Blonde Venus disc includes “The Fashion Side of Hollywood” (10 min.), a publicity short from 1935 that features Dietrich modeling clothes designed for her by costume designer Travis Banton, and “The Marlene Dietrich Collection” (15 min.), a 15-minute featurette about the immense collection of Dietrich memorabilia housed at the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin, featuring an interview with curator Silke Ronneburg. The Scarlet Empress and The Devil Is a Woman discs also have only one supplement each: On the former, we have “Marlene Dietrich in Denmark” (29 min.), a retrospective interview with Dietrich from 1971 that aired on Swedish television, while on the latter we have the audio from a 78 rpm promotional disc of the song “If It Isn’t Pain,” which had to be cut from the film due to restrictions by the Production Code Administration (PCA). Finally, the boxset is packaged with a thick insert book that features essays on each film by critics Imogen Sara Smith, Gary Giddins, and Farran Smith Nehme.

    Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

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