You’re in China now. Where time and life have no value.
The three-day train ride from Peking to Shanghai has commenced and all anyone’s talking about is the rumor that the infamous Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich) is on-board. Most of the passengers, like respectable boarding house owner Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale) and Christian missionary Mr. Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), are scandalized by the prospect, but others, like the genial Mr. Chang (Warner Oland), are curious about their prospects where it comes to getting to know her better (wink). Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brook), a surgeon on his way to help the Chinese government with a medical problem amidst the nation’s civil unrest, doesn’t necessarily care either way. Until, of course, he runs into an old flame he hasn’t seen in five years and hears her admit she’s their Lily.
Josef von Sternberg‘s Shanghai Express, as written by Jules Furthman from a short story by Harry Hervey, is thus balanced upon this long-since ended relationship’s obvious lingering effects. Both harbor regret for what happened (she forced him to prove his love by having faith in her when fidelity was called into question and he admittedly failed that test), but now it seems too much time and too much change may ensure they never get a second chance. It doesn’t matter that she’s willing to ignore every man’s advance towards her in the hopes she can win him back or that he has never let go of the watch she gave him with her photograph still inside. They are both very different people now regardless of their shared past.
What if something were to happen that could transport them back to try again? The opportunity comes in the form of a hijacking with the Chinese rebellion’s leader collecting passports to discover who amongst the passengers might be important enough to trade for his second-in-command. Mrs. Haggerty has nothing of value but her smuggled in dog and Carmichael only possesses God’s word. Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette), a gambler, would probably bet his own life for the chance to prove he has value, but he, Eric Baum (Gustav von Seyffertitz), and French Major Lenard (Emile Chautard) have little to offer. And while their captor would love to spend time with either Lily or Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), neither would make a good bargaining chip. Not like Captain Harvey.
The set-up is hardly original as Harvey chooses to give himself up to save the others before Lily risks her own life to save his, but the act itself isn’t the draw here. No, this is about whether Harvey has learned his lesson about trust and love. He already has the idea of the woman he loves having sold her body the past half decade swirling around in his mind, so who knows what she’ll have to say or do to get him to believe anything she does is altruistic. And Lily has never been one to pretend he isn’t the one man she cares about more than anything in the world. She won’t, however, allow him to demean her with his holier than thou sense of superiority.
This is where the sprawling cast of characters come into play. They add humor and color to the proceedings as well as bodies to move and act in the spaces separating Lily and Harvey. Each is reliably consistent in his/her attitudes (Sam doesn’t trust Lenard because he can’t understand him, Haggerty despises Carmichael, and most are too racist to trust Chang or Fei due to their Chinese heritage) and surprisingly effective in how the script utilizes those certainties to advance the plot. There are consequences for every action and von Sternberg and company are not averse to going to dark places where rape and murder are concerned. But while escaping danger is paramount, this ensemble is really all about forcing Harvey to choose between love and pride again.
Does this fact ultimately belittle Wong’s role? Yes. Her Hui Fei is one of the best characters of the whole film and yet the script constantly undercuts her strength by always refocusing her actions (and those acted upon her) in context with Lily and Harvey. She’s the mysterious figure in the shadows that everyone underestimates and abuses only for them all to laud her as a hero by the end—a label she doesn’t even want since she doesn’t do what she does for them anyway. I’ve read some people say that Shanghai Express is hurt by the stretches of time where Dietrich isn’t on-screen, but I’d argue she and Harvey are the least interesting pieces of the whole because the script places everyone else in their orbit.
Give me more of the others. I love the quips and asides they add once the drama hits. Haggerty can’t help but find her dog when the chance arises. Sam can’t help trying to trick anyone in earshot to get into a wager with him. And how can you not revel in the unbridled excitement on Lenard’s face despite never knowing what he’s saying (unless Lily is translating)? They’re all as much distraction as they are pawns, but there’s a surprising depth to each that endears us to their safety and opinions when trouble threatens to destroy them. Which will ultimately be the one that sees the truth of who Lily is while Harvey stubbornly refuses to open his eyes? Which (if any) will help save the day?
That’s not to say Dietrich and Brook aren’t stars, though. Oland provides a nice villainous turn for them and Wong to play against, but the hostage situation is never at the forefront of our minds when Lily and Harvey are on-screen. Everything they do has the other in mind either fondly or angrily. No amount of peril can compete with them wondering where they stand in context with the other first. They would die for each other—sometimes for spite—and yet neither would ever demand a “thank you” or even an acknowledgement since the act is as involuntary as breathing. And since survival might not guarantee their love gets reborn, the journey is made that much more captivating because it reveals an authentic uncertainty beyond genre cliché.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.