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. It was the fourth of seven teamings of Sternberg and Dietrich.[1]

Hervey's story was, in turn, loosely based on the May 6, 1923 incident in which a Shengdong 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.[2][3]

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.

Shanghai Express was released during the Great Depression, a time where the American public was poor and in low moral standings. Van Sternberg’s movie was an escape from the harsh reality that was taking place outside the theater. Whether it was through Marlene Dietrich’s luxurious and elegant style or through the exotic and foreign setting, Civil War China. The fantasy like story and setting made the film a huge hit with the public, grossing $3,700,000 US in its initial screenings in the United States alone, becoming Dietrich’s biggest US box-office hit. That was in 1932 dollars; adjusted for inflation, that’s more than $55 million today. [4]

Shanghai Express has been remade as Night Plane from Chungking (1942) and Peking Express (1951).


Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932)

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. When 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 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." Lily makes it clear that she still cares deeply for him. It becomes apparent that his feelings also have not changed.

Among the other passengers are fellow coaster Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), zealous missionary Mr. Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), 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).

During the train’s route, Chinese Government soldiers search the train and begin to check passenger identification papers. Amid their search they locate a high ranking Rebel agent. During the commotion we see Chang make his way to a telegraph office and send a coded message. Later, after the government excursion the train is then stopped and taken over by the rebel army loyal to a powerful warlord, revealed to be, Chang.

Chang begins to question the passengers, looking for someone important enough to exchange for his valued aide, the man who was taken by the Chinese Government earlier. 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, Chang doesn't accept the answer and becomes forceful with Lily. Overhearing from the next room, Harvey breaks in and knocks Chang down. Because Chang needs Harvey alive Chang swallows (but does not forget) the insult and leaves them alone. Chang then has Hui Fei brought to him in his quarters, where he forces himself on her. 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.

Carmichael, trusting his instincts, gets Lily to tell him the truth about her self-sacrifice. She insists that he not enlighten Harvey, because love must go hand in hand with faith. In the end, the train finally reaches Shanghai safely, Hui Fei is the center of attention because she is killed the rebel warlord, yet she doesn't accept the fame and quickly exits the scene. Harvey still knows nothing of Lily’s willingness to sacrifice herself for his safety. In his eyes, Lily was simply willing to sell herself to another man. Lily offers her love unconditionally and demands the same in return. Harvey finally breaks down and comes over to Lily, confessing his total unconditional love for her and the finally embrace.


Clive Brook as Captain Donald “Doc” Harvey, a British medical corps officer and a former lover of Shanghai Lily’s.

Marlene Dietrich as Magdalen (Known as “Shanghai Lily”), she plays “White Flower of the Chinese Coast”, a “Coaster” or courtesan that travels up and down the Eastern Chinese coast.

Anna May Wong as Hui Fei, a companion of Shanghai Lily and fellow coaster hoping for a new start.

Warner Oland as Henry Chang, a mysterious business man that eventually reveals himself as the leader of the Rebel Group.

Lawrence Grand as Reverend Carmichael, a zealous missionary.

Eugene Pallete as Sam Salt, an inveterate gambler.

Gustav von Seyffertitz as Eric Baum, a German opium dealer.

Louise Closser Hale as Mrs. Haggerty, a house keeper for a boarding house in Shanghai.

Emile Chautard as French officer Major Lenard.


Shanghai Express is a movie based on the story “Sky Over China” by Harry Hervey.[5] In production from August to November 1931 it was released in 1932. [6] Directed by Josef von Sternberg during Von Sternberg’s partnership with Marlene Dietrich. In the seven films he made with her, Josef von Sternberg took his obsession with Marlene Dietrich to ever more extreme lengths of intensity and stylization, until both star and story were all but subsumed in a welter of spectacle and design. 'Shanghai Express' was the fourth of the seven teamings and so, coming at the midpoint in the cycle, holds the elements in near perfect balance.[5] The production employed more than 1,000 extras, creating a sense of teeming masses of China. The film was shot on sound stages at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood or at nearby Southern California locations.[5] The production also included buying a calf and raising it around the loud noises made by locomotives specifically for the scene of a cow blocking the railway. [7]

Themes and Analysis[edit]

Shanghai Express is part of the seven film Dietrich and Sternberg teaming. Sternberg focused more on the stylistic aspects of his movies over the story. Style was brought to the front of the scene through methods of black and white lighting, specifically we can see this used during the scene when Lily is praying for her love Harvey to remain safe in captivity. The light focuses only on Dietrich’s slender clasped hands while the rest of her is in darkness. Another method employed is the style of the setting and the characters. Von Sternberg effectively used physical confinement and cramped quarters, often setting his characters behind partially obscuring architectural artifacts in the foreground, to create the crowded, but often lonely, atmosphere of modern urban society. This cinematic style, combined with his stories which featured characters more obsessed about their pasts than their futures, set the parameters that came to make up film noir.[5]

Romance is the overlying theme of the film, the tension between Harvey and Shanghai Lily can be seen from beginning to end. Self-sacrifices made out of an act of love makes the audience understand the deep emotional feelings that Lily has for Harvey. Love and emotion play a larger role than the action of the film, it is much closer related to the important style aspect that Sternberg employed. Action scenes are fast paced and direct, while the romantic scenes are drawn out and lingered, creating a sense of anticipation.

The action scenes are quick and riveting, they neither slow down the story nor take away from the feel of the movie. The setting of civil war China creates a sense of inherent danger throughout the film, peaking when the train is taken over by the Rebels and the characters are taken hostage.

Woman Empowerment and Self Righteousness: In the early 1930s, director Josef von Sternberg transformed a plump, not-very-successful German actress into an international sex goddess named Marlene Dietrich.[5] Dietrich’s character is the epitome of class, glamour, and the image of an empowered woman. Dietrich murmurs what is probably her most famous line: "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily." Marlene Dietrich’s movie persona was that of a woman who survived for herself alone, wrapped in designer feathers and veils, always giving off the sense of class. This was one of the first films to truly give women their own power. Dietrich was a pioneer in the progression of women empowerment. Her roles in Van Sternberg’s films were those of cunning, elegant, and strong willed women. In her role as Shanghai Lily we see her as an independent, a “coaster” who travels all across China looking for business, not following anyone’s rules but her own. Dietrich draws the eyes of every man in the room and keeps them on a string around her finger. She is the embodiment of self-imaged woman.

Exotic and Foreign: The entire film was made to portray the sense of the exotic and foreign Chinese coast to the viewer. The scene that most exemplifies the sense of "otherworldliness" is just as the train leaves station and has to crawl along as an entire market place moves off the tracks and waits for the train to pass along, the train must stop because there is a cow on the tracks that will not budge. Many aspects of the film have been objectified to fit this exotic model. Hui Fei has traits of being an object in the film, she is one of the main characters in the film, yet she is distanced and treated mysteriously throughout.

Awards and nominations[edit]

Award Category Nominee Outcome
5th Academy Awards
(Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)[8]
Best Picture Shanghai Express
Winner was Grand Hotel
Best Director Josef von Sternberg
Winner was Frank BorzageBad Girl
Best Cinematography Lee Garmes Won


  1. ^
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Outrage at Lincheng: China Enters the Twentieth Century by Michael J. Nozinski, (1990)
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b c d e
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ "The 5th Academy Awards (1932) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 6 February 2014. 

External links[edit]