Shanghai Express is probably my least favorite of the seven films Sternberg made with Dietrich — which is only to say that I like it less than the others, not that I don’t like it. It has always seemed the most conventional one. Clive Brook’s Donald has never seemed worthy of Dietrich, and Shanghai Lily’s prayers for his life are one of the rare instances where Sternberg’s considered sense of absurdity devolves into pure corniness, as beautifully photographed as that scene most certainly is. That said, on these most recent viewings, I was forced to wonder whether the fact that Shanghai Lily is demeaned in my eyes by her love for Donald isn’t intentional. All of these Sternberg-Dietrich collaborations are about the humiliations of love, and in the previous two films, Morocco (1930) and Dishonored (1931), Dietrich’s character is indeed humbled and even destroyed by love (as opposed to the first film in the sequence, The Blue Angel (1930), where she plays a femme fatale). Maybe Shanghai Express makes it three in a row?
In his New York Times review of the new TCM double-DVD that also contains Dishonored, Dave Kehr calls Shanghai Express “one of the few comedies in the von Sternberg canon,” and it’s not hard to believe that Sternberg is mocking the two lovers. John Baxter, in The Cinema of Josef von Sternberg, sees Donald as the one who is brought to heel by Lily, symbolized by the way she takes his riding crop from him as they kiss at the end. (But Baxter also bizarrely claims that in the scene in which we see Lily praying in the dark her clasped hands represent not prayer but “a Gethsemane of eroticism,” whatever that means.) Andrew Sarris also sees Donald as the one who is humbled: “Her face merely taunts him in a myriad of mirrors until he surrenders to the illusion she represents, but on her terms rather than his.” Even if this view is correct, however, what does Lily gain from her humbling of a proud stiff like Donald? She may have brought him to heel, but in the end he’s still a dog. Sarris finds the apparently conventional happy ending to be bitterly ironic, but if so maybe the irony is that in the power struggle between lovers, nobody actually gets what they want.
The story of Shanghai Express is about a group of characters on a train traveling from Peking to Shanghai. China is in the middle of a civil war (which in a Sternberg film inevitably becomes a state of desire more than of politics), and the characters are caught up in it. Donald is a British medical officer who was once in love with Lily but left her five years earlier when she betrayed him in an unspecified way that she describes as a test of faith: “I wanted to be certain you loved me. Instead I lost you.” Having failed at love, Lily apparently turned to a career in prostitution. When Donald is held hostage by a Chinese warlord, Lily offers herself in exchange. Of course Donald thinks she’s doing it because she just likes giving herself to strange men. Meanwhile the other characters are forced to reveal their hidden identities by the crisis.
Indeed, it is amongst the secondary characters that the film explores some of the most interesting aspects of the story. One of the cheekiest exchanges occurs between Eugene Pallette, playing some kind of flim-flam man who loves to gamble, and the Swedish actor Warner Oland, playing another Asian character in what was a specialty for him (most famously as Charlie Chan). I’m not sure how controversial yellowface was at the time, but Sternberg seems to be poking fun at the subterfuge, while also elaborating the theme of false identities and play-acting.
Pallette: I can’t make heads or tails out of you, Mr. Chang. Are you Chinese or are you white or what are you?
Oland: My mother was Chinese. My father was white.
Pallette: You look more like a white man to me.
Most fascinating of all is Anna May Wong as Shanghai Lily’s fellow prostitute, Hui Fei. She plays second fiddle to Dietrich, but the two women share a bond of solidarity and Hui Fei has her own agenda. She in fact strikes the key blow that resolves the fate of Donald and Lily. Wong doesn’t get a lot of dialogue, and the first time I watched the movie she was practically invisible. Yet once I became attuned to her importance to the film, I became more and more fascinated by her practically silent performance. Not only does she change the course of the plot, but she also suffers the most of any of the characters and strikes out to alleviate that suffering. I’m not sure whether Sternberg was really a feminist, as some have claimed, but this character and her relationship with Lily is one of the strongest arguments for the idea. (One of the things I hold against Donald, it must be confessed, is that he priggishly snubs Hui Fei when Lily introduces him to her.)
But in the end it’s Dietrich’s show. Throughout the film Sternberg uses doors and windows to create frames for the characters. There are many shots of various cast members looking out the windows of the train, creating a series of frames that suggest the frames in a strip of film. Dietrich somehow eludes the framing. Not only is she often shot through obscuring filters of smoke or gauze or shadow, but she always seems to be caught between frames, half-in and half-out. She is an object of mystery. There are many gorgeous portraits of her in the film, but perhaps most brilliant is how an empty frame can evoke her luminous absence.