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Shanghai Express (film)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Shanghai Express
Shanghai Express (1932) original poster.jpg
Original theatrical poster
Directed byJosef von Sternberg
Written byJules Furthman
Harry Hervey (story)
Based on"Sky Over China" (also known as "China Pass")
by Harry Hervey
Produced byAdolph Zukor
StarringMarlene Dietrich
Clive Brook
Anna May Wong
Warner Oland
CinematographyLee Garmes
James Wong Howe
Edited byFrank Sullivan
Music byW. Franke Harling
Rudolph G. Kopp
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • February 12, 1932 (1932-02-12)
Running time
80 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguagesEnglish (primarily), German, French, Mandarin
Box office$827,000 (domestic rentals)[1]

Shanghai Express is a 1932 American pre-Code film about a group of (mostly) European and American first-class travelers on a train who are held hostage by a warlord during the Chinese Civil War.

It was directed by Josef von Sternberg and stars Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook, Anna May Wong, and Warner Oland. The screenplay was written by Jules Furthman, based on a 1931 short story by Harry Hervey. Shanghai Express was the fourth of seven films Sternberg and Dietrich made together.

The film was released during the midst of the Great Depression. It was remade as Night Plane from Chungking (1943) and Peking Express (1951).


In 1931, China is embroiled in a civil war. Friends of British Captain Donald "Doc" Harvey (Clive Brook) envy him because the fabulously notorious Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich) is a fellow passenger on the express train he is taking from Peking to Shanghai. Because 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 Madeline. Five years earlier, she had played a trick on him 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 clarifies that she still cares deeply for him, and it becomes apparent that his feelings also have not changed when she inadvertently sees the watch she gave him with her photograph still in it.

Among the other passengers in first class are fellow coaster Hui Fei (Anna May Wong); Christian missionary Mr. Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), who initially 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).

At a scheduled stop, Chinese government soldiers empty the train to check passports and apprehend a high-ranking rebel agent, after which Chang makes his way to the 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. He begins to question the first-class passengers, looking for someone important enough that the government will trade them for his valued aide, and finds what he is looking for in Harvey, who is on his way to perform brain surgery on the Governor-General of Shanghai.

While he is waiting for his aide to be brought to him, Chang talks with Shanghai Lily and offers to take her back to his palace. She declines, claiming she has reformed. When Chang refuses to accept her answer, Harvey breaks in and knocks him down. Because Chang needs Harvey alive, he does not retaliate immediately, but neither does he forget the insult. He leaves Lily's room and has Hui Fei brought to his quarters, where he forces himself on her. Lily is taken back to the train and stays up all night praying for Harvey.

When Chang's man arrives, Chang reveals to Lily that he has decided to blind Harvey for his insolence before letting him go. Out of love, she offers herself to Chang in exchange for Harvey's safety. Harvey is released unharmed, unaware of the danger he was in or of Lily's reason for going with Chang.

Hui Fei sneaks into Chang's quarters and stabs him to death while he is packing to leave. She lets Harvey know what she has done and tells him to go get Lily. He rescues her before the body is discovered, and the train departs. The missionary Carmichael, trusting his instincts, gets Lily to reveal to him the truth about how she had saved Harvey. She insists he not tell Harvey because she feels that there must be faith for there to be love, and he agrees.

The train finally reaches Shanghai, and the passengers go their separate ways. Harvey finds Lily. He asks her to forgive him for his lack of faith and asks if they can have a new start. She apologizes for withholding information from him and says she has always loved him and always will. They kiss amidst the bustle of the train station.



L to R: Marlene Dietrich, Warner Oland, Clive Brook
L to R: Marlene Dietrich, Warner Oland, Clive Brook

Shanghai Express was based on Henry Hervey's story "Sky Over China" (also known as "China Pass"), which, in turn, was loosely based on an incident that occurred on May 6, 1923, where a Shandong warlord captured the Shanghai to Beijing express train and took 25 westerners and 300 Chinese hostage. All of the hostages captured in the Lincheng Outrage, one of whom was Lucy Aldrich, were successfully ransomed.[2][3]

The story also echoes elements of Guy de Maupassant's short story "Boule de Suif" in the setting of travelers stopped in a country at war and a woman called upon to sleep with the commander in charge. However, the denouement is altered, as in the story the woman does not murder the commander.

Paramount studio heads were concerned that the Hays Office kept a close watch on the film due to the portrayal of the Reverend Carmichael and the depiction of the Chinese revolution.[4]

Although set in China, there were few Chinese actors in the film.[5] In production from August to November 1931, Shanghai Express was released in 1932.[6][7]


L to R: Anna May Wong, Marlene Dietrich, Warner Oland
L to R: Anna May Wong, Marlene Dietrich, Warner Oland

Shanghai Express was dubbed "Grand Hotel on wheels".[by whom?] The film was praised by Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times as a star vehicle for Marlene Dietrich: "Miss Dietrich gives an impressive performance. She is langourous but fearless as Lily." He also singled out other characters: "Clive Brooks's performance is also noteworthy...Warner Oland is excellent as Mr. Chang and Anna May Wong makes the most of the role of the brave Chinese girl. Eugene Pallette serves splendidly as Sam Salt."[8]

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 this 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." [9]

The critic for Senses of Cinema called Shanghai Express 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, as 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.[6]

Shanghai Express 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 von Sternberg who was responsible for most of it.[7]

Awards and honors

Award Category Nominee Outcome
5th Academy Awards
(Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)[10]
Best Picture Shanghai Express
Winner was Grand Hotel
Best Director Josef von Sternberg
Winner was Frank BorzageBad Girl
Best Cinematography Lee Garmes Won


  1. ^ "Shanghai Express (1932) Review, with Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong and Colin Brook". Pre-Code.Com. April 7, 2016.
  2. ^ French 2006[page needed]
  3. ^ Nozinski 1990[page needed]
  4. ^ "Notes: 'Shanghai Express'." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: July 2, 2015.
  5. ^ Leong 2005, pp. 181–182.
  6. ^ a b Dixon (2012).
  7. ^ a b Landazuri, Margarita. "Shanghai Express." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: July 2, 2015.
  8. ^ Hall, Mordaunt. "'Shanghai Express' (1932): Marlene Dietrich in a brilliantly directed melodrama set aboard a train running from Peiping to Shanghai." The New York Times, February 18, 1932.
  9. ^ Spence (1996), p. 210.
  10. ^ "The 5th Academy Awards (1932) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved February 6, 2014.


  • Dixon, Wheeler Winston (2012). "Shanghai Express". Senses of Cinema (62).
  • French, Paul. Carl Crow, a Tough Old China Hand: The Life, Times, and Adventures of an American in Shanghai. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2006. ISBN 962-209-802-9.
  • Leong, Karen J. The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2005. ISBN 0-520-24422-2.
  • Liu, Cynthia W. "When Dragon Ladies Die, Do They Come Back as Butterflies? Re-imagining Anna May Wong." Countervisions: Asian American Film Criticism. Hamamoto, Darrel and Sandra Liu, (editors). Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000, pp. 23–39. ISBN 1-56639-776-6.
  • Nozinski, Michael J. Outrage at Lincheng: China Enters the Twentieth Century. Centennial, Colorado: Glenbridge Publishing Ltd., 1990. ISBN 978-0-9444-3507-6.
  • Spence, Jonathan, "Shanghai Express", in Carnes, Mark C. (ed.), Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, New York: Holt, 1996, pp. 208–211

External links

This page was last edited on 12 July 2021, at 13:02
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