"It takes endless labor to eradicate the traces of labor."
James McNeil Whisttler
Joseph Von Sternberg
FUN IN A CHINESE LAUNDRY
It has always struck me that SHANGHAI EXPRESS is one of the most exquisite and idiosyncratic films to come out of that very fabled and very Golden Age of Hollywood.
For one thing, it is a lovely piece of old-fashioned ensemble acting. Obviously the film is built around Dietrich, but all the other cast members are more than allowed to make an impression, and even the minor ones each delivers a perfect little vignette.
Mind you, the film is very “mannered”, and very artificial, in that way that “Acting” used to be, before it was taken over by a more modern and “naturalistic” style. Indeed, in that respect, one could say that stylistically, SHANGHAI EXPRESS straddles the divide between the conventions of silent films and those of the Talkies, in 1932 only just truly coming into their own.
(Silents, as exquisitely modulated as some of them may have been, relied largely on gesture and facial expression, whereas adding spoken dialogue to the mix changed the conventions in dramatic ways--not least of which was to shade the grand stage traditions into something quieter and more closely resembling “real” life.)
The secret to enjoying a brilliant confection like SHANGHAI EXPRESS is that one simply must view the piece on its own terms, with all its conceits and stylizations intact. I would further suggest that the story is basically an extended allegory--in this case on that most seductive, delicious, and yes, dangerous theme of “Love Conquers All”--and I believe that viewing it as such negates the perhaps somewhat stilted conventions of the plot.
Camera man Lee Garms won a well deserved Academy Award for his camera work, and each frame bears the unmistakable imprint of both his and Von Sternberg’s visual genius. The film is of course famous for its use of chiaroscuro, an Italian term used to describe a particularly dramatic contrast between light and dark. However, the film also showcases a sort of emotional chiaroscuro, in that the characters, too, individually and collectively, exhibit a shaded spectrum of human qualities, in the same way as the film paints a shimmering black and white picture of an imagined China.
At the beginning, each of the players arrives in a manner that immediately announces their character: Dietrich’s Lilly/Madelaine steps out of a chauffeured limousine with an avalanche of expensive and well-traveled luggage; Anna Mae Wong’s character, a young Chinese woman of uncertain repute, arrives in a palanquin carried by native bearers; Louise Closser Hale’s morally upright proprietor of a boarding house in Shanghai reveals her true colors by attempting to smuggle her little dog into the first class carriage; Warner Oland’s Chinese businessman displays an overweening arrogance. In short, everyone is announced upon their arrival with a little mini-biography that gives us clues as to how they will comport themselves on the journey.
When Dietrich’s character leans out of the window of her carriage, her eyes shaded by cage-veiling, black coq feathers framing her pale features, her strand of rock crystal beads the size of quail’s eggs flashing in the half-light, and the white undersides of her black leather gloves (bought, we are told, during a shopping spree at Hermés in Paris,) glinting like snake’s bellies, the image is absolutely riveting. She later informs Clive Brook (he of the dashingly profile), her former lover and now unwilling companion on the train, that “Five years in China is a long time...” But for the moment she simply levels him by saying, “It took more than one man to change my name to... Shanghai Lilly.” (Actually, this is rather more akin to a shot between the eyes, as Shanghai Lilly is a notorious “coaster”, having ruined many a man while plying her wicked ways from coast to coast.)
The rest of the story plays out against the rhythms of the train itself, the somewhat staccato dialogue and delivery arranged by Von Sternberg to echo the sounds and motions of the journey. An artificial conceit, to be sure, but one entirely in keeping with the Director’s vision of his Photoplay.
What do we care if the Chinese characters are speaking Cantonese instead of Mandarin, or if the whole improbable confection was filmed in a warehouse in Ventura and on the back lot at Paramount? And really, who cares what Mrs. Von Sternberg thought of her husband’s obsession with the charms of the idiosyncratic and alluring Miss Dietrich? We care about the obsession, but only in terms of its result. I firmly believe the film is high art, albeit art of the sort that walks that fine line between what some now view as “camp” and an insanely glamorous and artificial world that exists only in the imagination.
Elsie de Wolfe, the doctor’s daughter from Brooklyn (herself a former stage actress, who later reinvented herself to become the First Lady of American Decorating) firmly espoused the idea that “Artifice has a liberating effect on the imagination”. Miss de Wolfe (who with an imaginative stroke later became the erstwhile Lady Mendl) was a strong proponent of this idea, and I must say I agree with her whole-heartedly.
And it is indeed through artifice that we are given the key to this amazing little world, where the characters are bound as tightly together as if on a ship in the midst of the ocean, rather than merely a train rushing through the cinematic night.
Dear Oscar, who can always be relied on for his pearls of wisdom, thrown off as “mere” cleverness, maintained that “The telling of beautiful untrue things is the proper aim of art.” And Hollywood did indeed excel at the telling of beautiful, untrue things, most particularly at the height of the Great Depression when people needed to be distracted from ‘headlines and breadlines’.
The divine Marlene is known to have dismissed her craft by saying that she had never taken acting seriously. But what are we to make of the woman who always worked before a mirror to gauge her every effect, and who learned the many complex technical aspects of her profession with a Teutonic thoroughness that belies her very statement? She certainly took her image seriously, and here in collusion with costumier Travis Banton (a mad genius if there ever was one!) and with her visionary director, she creates a singular characterization that burns itself onto our imagination.
Every artist has at least a touch of the Monster, or how else are we to explain the almost single minded drive that lifts such people above the ordinary and the quotidien? Art is not egalitarian (in the sense that it evolves out of a single-mindedness of purpose on the part of the maker) and it succeeds in direct proportion to being centered in the self. Most artists wish to share their creations, and often long to be acknowledged for them; but the true artist has his finger on his own pulse, and not that of his potential audience. It is is only pot boilers that are made by trying to pander to the market: true art is an attempt on the part of the artist to present a particular vision on his or her own terms, and to thus engage the audience in the artist’s way of thinking.
Although it might be stating the obvious, this film has indeed had me under its spell for a long, long time... Indeed, I remember the first time I saw it, in the company of my Mother at the Film Archives in Berkeley, and how I was completely speechless afterwards. By now, much like a favorite piece of art that has taken on the aspect of an old, much valued friend (or of a lover whose entrance always illuminates the room) SHANGHAI EXPRESS seems to hold quite endless delights.
As Miss Dietrich herself once sang (in a song titled “Illusions”) “It has a touch of Paradise, a spell you can’t explain...”
But the heart of both film and allegory is revealed to us at the end by the Reverend Mr. Carmichael, the stiff-necked minister who articulates the great psychological truth of the film, when he says to Dietrich, with great humility “You’re right. Love without faith, like religion without faith, doesn’t amount to very much.”
So not only is love the conquering force, but it is most specifically unconditional love, arguably one of the greatest and most universal themes known to man.
Franklin John Kakies
May 2008/revised May 2010
(Dedicated to the memory of my dear Mother and Friend Monica Kakies (born Erna Mros in Hamburg, Germany on December 25, 1906), who was as great a fan of Dietrich as I am. Monica could be ready at the drop of a hat to 'dash up the hill' for a 2:00 a.m. viewing of the Persiad, or make a pilgrimage to the Berkeley Film Archives to watch Marlene step out of a gorilla suit... and she could go from Goethe to Ginger (with Fred, of course!) and find realms of delight in both! She leaves an enormous gap in the life of her only son, whose enthusiasms (no matter how hare-brained) she always respected, and whose talents she always unwaveringly believed in.)
Marlene Dietrich--(Shanghai Lilly)
Clive Brook--(Captain Donald Harvey)
Anna Mae Wong--(Hui Fei)
Warner Oland--(Henry Chang)
Eugene Pallette--Sam Salt)
Lawrence Grant--(Mr. Carmichael)
Louise Closser Hale--(Mrs. Haggerty)
Gustav Von Seyffertitz--(Eric Baum)
Emile Chautard--(Major Lenard)
(Hollywood films in the Thirties often used the instrumental version of a current popular song as a kind of commentary to the action. In the final scene, as the two lovers resoundingly claim one another amid the bustle of the Shanghai train station (Brook says “How in Confucius’ name am I going to kiss you with all these people?” to which Dietrich replies, “But Donald--there is no one here but you and me.”) we can hear the strains of a little number popularized by the divine Mr. Bing Crosby (“Ho Hum--Kiss me lightly/Ho Hum--hold me tightly/Ho Hum, say “good nightly”...”) adding an ironic little commentary, as Miss Dietrich and Mr. Brook seem to be doing anything but kissing one-another lightly...)