Shanghai Express (film)

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Shanghai Express
Shanghai Express film poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Josef von Sternberg
Produced by Adolph Zukor
Written by Jules Furthman
Harry Hervey (story)
Starring Marlene Dietrich
Clive Brook
Anna May Wong
Music by W. Franke Harling
Rudolph G. Kopp
Cinematography Lee Garmes
James Wong Howe
Edited by Frank Sullivan
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release dates
  • February 2, 1932 (1932-02-02)
Running time
80 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Shanghai Express is a 1932 American film directed by Josef von Sternberg. The pre-Code picture stars Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook, Anna May Wong, and Warner Oland. It was written by Jules Furthman, based on a 1931 story by Harry Hervey[fr]. It was the fourth of seven films von Sternberg and Dietrich made together.

Hervey's story was, in turn, loosely based on the May 6, 1923, incident in which a Shandong warlord captured the Shanghai to Beijing express train, taking 25 westerners and 300 Chinese hostage. All of the hostages captured in the Lincheng Outrage were successfully ransomed.[1][2]

The film is memorable for its stylistic black-and-white chiaroscuro cinematography. Even though Lee Garmes was awarded the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, according to Dietrich, it was Sternberg who was responsible for most of it.[citation needed]

Shanghai Express was released during the Great Depression. Van Sternberg’s movie was an escape from the harsh reality outside the theater. It was a huge hit with the public, grossing $3,700,000 in its initial screenings in the United States alone, becoming Dietrich’s biggest American box-office hit. That was in 1932 dollars; adjusted for inflation, that’s more than $55 million today.[3]

It was remade as Night Plane from Chungking (1942) and Peking Express (1951).


In 1931, China is embroiled in a civil war. Friends of British Captain Donald "Doc" Harvey (Brook) envy him because the fabulously notorious Shanghai Lily is a fellow passenger on the express train from Beiping to Shanghai. Since the name means nothing to him, they inform him that she is a "coaster" or "woman who lives by her wits along the China coast" – in other words, a courtesan. On the journey, Harvey encounters Lily, who turns out to be his former lover, Magdalen (Dietrich). Five years earlier, she had played a trick on Harvey to gauge his love for her, but it backfired and he left her. She frankly informs him that, in the interim, "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily." When Lily makes it clear that she still cares deeply for him it becomes apparent that his feelings also have not changed, and he shows her the watch she gave him with her photograph still in it.[4]

Among the other passengers are fellow coaster Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), Lily's companion; Christian missionary Mr. Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), who at first condemns the two "fallen women"; inveterate gambler Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette); opium dealer Eric Baum (Gustav von Seyffertitz);boarding house keeper Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale); French officer Major Lenard (Emile Chautard); and a mysterious Eurasian, Henry Chang (Warner Oland).[4]

Chinese government soldiers board and search the train and apprehend a high-ranking rebel agent. Chang then makes his way to a telegraph office and sends a coded message. Later, the train is stopped and taken over by the rebel army and its powerful warlord, who turns out to be Chang. Chang begins to question the passengers, looking for someone important enough to exchange for his valued aide. He finds what he wants in Harvey, who is on his way to perform brain surgery on the Governor-General of Shanghai. Chang offers to take Shanghai Lily to his palace, but she claims she has reformed. When Chang refuses to accept her answer, Harvey breaks in and knocks him down. Because Chang needs Harvey alive, he swallows (but does not forget) the insult. Chang then has Hui Fei brought to him in his quarters, where he forces himself on her.[4]

The government releases Chang's man, but Chang decides to blind Harvey for his insolence. Out of love, Lily offers herself in return for Harvey's safe release. Harvey remains unaware of the danger he is in and Lily's reason for going with Chang. Then Chang is stabbed to death by Hui Fei. When she informs Harvey, he finds Lily. They board the train and depart before the body is discovered. The missionary Carmichael, trusting his instincts, gets Lily to reveal the truth. She insists that he not enlighten Harvey, because love must go hand in hand with faith. When the train finally reaches Shanghai safely, Lily offers Harvey her love unconditionally, but demands the same in return. Harvey finally breaks down and embraces her.[4]



In production from August to November 1931 it was released in 1932.[3]


Jonathan Spence, writing about the film's usefulness as a piece of history says that the real events of 1923 Lincheng Incident were far more dramatic but says that nonetheless it is “a wonderful film, with great performances by Dietrich – ‘it took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily’ – and Anna May Wong.” [5])

The critic for Senses of Cinema called the film a "riotous exercise in excess in every area; the visuals are overpowering and sumptuous; the costumes ornate and extravagant; the sets a riot of fabrics, light and space; and all of it captured in the most delectable black-and-white cinematography that one can find anywhere." He discusses the film’s interest in the questions of race and colonialism and notes the "peculiar bifurcation" of the film’s view of race; most of the respectable “white” characters in the film are seen as both flawed and racist. Only Dietrich, Wong, and to some extent “Doc” Harvey, have any "real moral agency." He calls the film "surprisingly feminist," with Dietrich being a "strong, dominating presence" and Wong's character her equal.[3]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Award Category Nominee Outcome
5th Academy Awards
(Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)[6]
Best Picture Shanghai Express
Winner was Grand Hotel
Best Director Josef von Sternberg
Winner was Frank BorzageBad Girl
Best Cinematography Lee Garmes Won


  • Dixon, Wheeler Winston (2012). "Shanghai Express". Senses of Cinema (62). 
  • Spence, Jonathan (1996), "Shanghai Express", in Carnes, Mark C., Past Perfect: History According to the Movies, New York: Holt, pp. 208–211 


  1. ^ Carl Crow, a Tough Old China Hand: The Life, Times, and Adventures of an American in Shanghai by Paul French, (2006) ISBN 962-209-802-9.
  2. ^ Outrage at Lincheng: China Enters the Twentieth Century by Michael J. Nozinski, (1990)
  3. ^ a b c Dixon (2012).
  4. ^ a b c d Spence (1996).
  5. ^ Spence (1996), p. 210.
  6. ^ "The 5th Academy Awards (1932) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 6 February 2014. 

External links[edit]