The movie Shanghai Express was the highest grossing film at the box office in 1932. It’s easy to see why. In the midst of an economic depression that is still spoken of today in somber tones, the world found its respite in dark rooms with bright walls projecting fantasies of wealth and glamour and beauty. Shanghai Express delivers all of the above with deep romance and mystery. It was the fourth of seven films made by director Josef von Sternberg with Marlene Dietrich as his top billed star. As the title supposes, the setting is China and the story occurs on a train to Shanghai amidst a period of tense political turmoil and civil war. Marlene plays Shanghai Lily, a courtesan whose reputation precedes her and who, amidst such murky waters, is the unlikely moral agent. Anna May Wong plays Hui Fei, a fellow courtesan and roommate to Shanghai Lily of equal glamour and status.
The set and costume design of the film are exquisite and sumptuous, only to be outdone by the exquisite sumptuousness of the cinematography (cinematographer Lee Garmes won an Oscar for his work on this film). Marlene truly found her light in this movie. The classic studio era key lighting was exaggerated by extreme shadow, drawing out the peaks and valleys of her sculptural bone structure. She looked nearly extraterrestrial. Dietrich’s face makes you think you’re hearing the sound of giant silver dollars gently clinking faintly in the distance—it screams money. It’s no surprise that nearly half the movie is comprised of close ups of her. A face like that atop piles of furs, sequins, feathers, silk and velvet—Dietrich was just the antidote to the Depression-era blues.
P.S. The full movie is posted at the bottom of this post - Grab some popcorn, scroll down and enjoy!
Shanghai Express (1932) - Feature by FilmGorillas