“If you’re thinking of reforming me, you might as well save yourself the trouble.”
Chang: About two days journey from here into the interior I have a palace waiting to be graced by your presence. Could I persuade you to accept my hospitality until such time as you grow weary of me?
Shanghai Lily: I’m weary of you now.
Dr. Harvey: I wish you could tell me there had been no other men.
Shanghai Lily: I wish I could darling…but 5 years in China is a long time.
I have a weak spot for films set on trains, so since Shanghai Express is a combination of Marlene Dietrich, director Joseph von Sternberg and trains…well, I loved it. Set in the 1920s, the passengers take a literal journey to Shanghai, but the journey is also figurative: hypocrites, liars, and scoundrels are unmasked, and everyone’s moral stamina is sorely tested.
The film begins with passengers loading onto the Shanghai Express for the Peking-Shanghai trip. The country is on the brink of civil war, and there are rumours of revolutionary activity. The passengers feel a vague sense of unease, and they will be relieved to reach their destination.
The international passengers include: a Frenchman who’s going to visit his sister, pompous Reverend Mr. Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), British army officer, physician Captain Harvey (Clive Brook), a mysterious Chinese woman Hui Fei (Dora May Wong), perennial gambler American Sam Salt (Eugene Palette), Mr. Henry Chang (Warner Oland) and elderly Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale) who’s traveling with her dog. When the infamous Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich) boards the train, some of the more strait-laced passengers express outrage at her presence. But Shanghai Lily connects with Hui Fei, and they share a compartment.
Shanghai Lily and Hui Fei are both ‘fallen women,’ and the other passengers are outraged that they are forced to share the same train. According to Dr. Harvey, Shanghai Lily has “wrecked a dozen men,” and she’s “riding this train in search of new victims.” It seems that Capt. Harvey and Shanghai Lily once had a passionate affair, so he isn’t very happy to see her again. It’s difficult to see just what the luscious Lily sees in such a stuffed shirt, but then again during some of their more romantic scenes, Dietrich takes a playful tongue in cheek pose that lightens the seriousness of the mood.
When revolutionaries commandeer the train, the true moral courage of the passengers is revealed. Some of those who were highly respected end the journey under a cloud of scandal, and some passengers are forced to reevaluate their opinions of Shanghai Lily. Dietrich is enchantingly luminous in this film, and many of her lines are loaded with sexual innuendo: “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”