I rented The Scarlet Empress in anticipation of seeing Shanghai Express on 35mm at Emory – a screening preceded by a brief talk on the different goals of cinematography (Sternberg’s main one being glamour, not story). Empress is surely glorious-looking, but I appreciate a good story and snappy dialogue to go with my pretty pictures, and so I thought the less opulent and ornate but still exquisite-looking and more excitingly plotted Shanghai Express was the better movie.
Dietrich is Shanghai Lil, a fallen woman who runs into her old soldier boyfriend “Doc” (still-handsome Clive Brook, who played Rolls Royce in Underworld) aboard the titular train. The two of them try to avoid each other in the small first-class section of the Express, along with Marlene’s fellow traveler Anna May Wong, arrogant dog lady Louise Hale, gambler Eugene Pallette (happily closer to his croaky Preston Sturges persona than his Intolerance days), a preacher and a man named Lenard (silent film director Emile Chautard, also in Seventh Heaven) who only speaks French, much to everyone else’s annoyance. Oh, and there’s mysterious Warner Oland (returning from Dishonored), who turns out to be a head communist in the Chinese Civil War traveling undercover. He holds up the train when one of his deputies is captured, keeping Clive Brook (on his way to perform surgery on a head nationist) in exchange.
The government agrees to the exchange, releases the deputy, and Clive is allowed to return to the train. But Warner has made a damned nuisance of himself during the night. He gets Lil to agree to marry him in exchange for Clive’s life, and he rapes Wong. Wong’s not one to take things lightly, kills Warner, grabs Lil and escapes. So they’re all safe on the train together, but Clive is being a putz about Lil’s faithfulness, needs the preacher’s help to “forgive” her for a happy ending.
Expensive-looking, but it was the top-grossing film of 1932 so I guess that’s fine. Won the best cinematography oscar, lost the rest to Grand Hotel. Never seen Anna May Wong before – she’s very good. Remade a couple times, with Ellen Drew then Joseph Cotten.