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Shanghai Express

Ring a Ding Ding

Shanghai Express (1932)

When Joseph Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich came together to make a movie, it in nearly all cases would place the heroine in an exotic setting. Von Sternberg, who was responsible for bringing Dietrich to Hollywood through the German production The Blue Angel, nearly recreates the woman’s character in that film –Lola Lola– through the one in Shanghai Express –Shanghai Lily. Dietrich was a far cry from the actress she would become when she made this the fourth collaboration with her director Von Sternberg. The man had put it upon himself to mold the Dietrich he found in Germany into a woman he held in his mind’s eye, and succeed he did. Dietrich’s performance here is full of the sultry seduction burlesque singer/dancer Lola Lola embodied with the same teasing air.

Shanghai Lily –whose real name is Magdalen (nearly the Magdalene that was Marlene’s real middle name)– is among the passengers taking the Shanghai Express train from Peking. She is the notorious white prostitute who sent many a man to ruin. Also on the train is her ex-lover Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brook) a medical officer in the English military. The two loved each other before many a man turned the woman into Shanghai Lily. The feelings remain between them but Harvey is angry not only because of why they split but because of what his woman became. Lily has also made a fast friend of a Chinese hooker Hui Fei (Anna May Wong) and repelled an older English woman worried about her dog in the baggage car and a doctor of religious philosophy.

The train is traversing war-stricken China and is initially stopped and inspected for a rebel spy. The man is apprehended and the train moves on but is halted at another stop after a character aboard the train, Mr. Chang (Warner Oland), alerts his rebel pals of the trouble. Chang holds the train hostage while demanding the rebel previously removed be released. Harvey is identified as the most valuable passenger as he is expected to perform surgery on an important Englishman as soon as the train reaches its destination. Agreements are reached but Chang plans to gouge out Harvey’s eyes because he blocked the rebel from having his way with Lily. Shanghai Lily sacrifices herself to save the man she loves but it is likely Harvey will never know what she did for him.

The plot of Shanghai Express is riveting. The dialogue is great and the performances superb for the most part. Unfortunately, Dietrich’s delivery of about half her lines comes out contrived. She spouts off compelling words with seemingly no emotion behind them as if Von Sternberg instructed her as to how to say them and she did so but without any conviction behind them. Some critics praised this unemphasized manner of speaking, but for me it comes off as bad acting. That’s not to say Dietrich is not thrilling to watch. Von Sternberg has created a chiaroscuro dream land through his use of lighting and smoke. Dietrich is featured in what seem to be almost still photographs throughout the picture as she poses in incredibly artistic ways, as indicated in the stills I’ve included here.

Although Lily and Lola Lola share some characteristics, the Dietrich here is, as I mentioned, far from the one who would perform in films not directed by Von Sternberg in years to come. Her wide-eyed darting glances make her look young and secretive and her voice is at a higher octave than the register she would use to growl out lines later on. To see her this young, however, is stunning in and of itself. Her face is so beautiful and Von Sternberg’s lighting of it so impactful that Shanghai Express could be viewed without sound and still be a wonderful picture.

  • Shanghai Express is set for 2 a.m. ET Sept. 26 and 10 p.m. ET Nov. 14 on TCM.

Source: Marlene Dietrich (Applause Legends Series) by Alexander Walker


A Foreign Affair

Ring a Ding Ding

Foreign Affair (1948)

I find it difficult to resist films featuring Marlene Dietrich or Jean Arthur but for entirely separate reasons. Whereas Dietrich is fascinatingly powerful and seductive in her typical roles, Arthur is adorable, innocent and hilarious. For the two of them to appear in a film together was a rather unexpected find, but quite rewarding.

A Foreign Affair involves the two rather opposite women fighting over the same man, but that is not the plot of the story. Arthur plays a congresswoman who is visiting Germany to analyze the morale of soldiers in the post-war occupation effort. Dietrich is a German singer who performs in a club meant to be off-limits to soldiers, and she might also have been close to a major Nazi influence during the war. While there, Arthur as Phoebe discovers that one of the soldiers has shielded this singer, Erika, from scrutiny because he is carrying on an affair with her. That soldier is John Pringle (John Lund), who has also agreed to help Phoebe search out the scoundrel and in the process starts to fall for her. Torn between two women, his passion and his duty, and kept busy by attempts to cover up his involvement, John is careening toward a world of hurt if he is found out. The real trouble, of course, is in explaining himself to Phoebe and convincing her that he does care for her.

Arthur began the film behaving utterly unlike the characters I am used to seeing her embody. She wears glasses, has a somewhat goofily conservative hairdo, and is too busy taking notes on every passing moment to enjoy the view from the airplane. As she begins to loosen up through her contact with John, she enjoys life’s experiences rather than jotting them down and even buys a dress on the black market to be appropriately clad for that off-limits club.

Dietrich began the film also in a persona unlike what I typically see. We first meet her in a small flat ravaged by the war, wearing the simplest of clothing and fawning over a pair of nylons John brings her. I would not have called her helpless at this stage, but she certainly failed to exude the power customary of her roles. That changes, however, when we see the glittery and glamorous Erika perform at the club. As the film goes on, her confidence and cleverness shines through, especially when standing off with Phoebe.

A Foreign Affair is also a visually attractive film, despite being set in the ruins of Berlin. Director Billy Wilder oft uses reflections to complete his shots. Two specific devices –a mirror in Erika’s home and a window in the club– are used as a means to show two people in one shot with only one of them directly in front of the camera –one of my favorite cinematographic devices.

I would highly recommend A foreign Affair. It is a great combination of humor, drama and serious emotional situations, and I do not think any other actresses could better have filled the roles.

Around the World in 80 Days


Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

Around the World in 80 Days is one of the lesser acclaimed Best Picture winners and understandably so. The 3+ hour movie offers an epic adventure marked by little excitement and characters that are difficult to love or identify with. David Niven‘s Phileas Fogg, who takes up a wager that he cannot circumvent the earth in 80 days, is uptight and cold. Despite this he manages to attract Shirley MacLaine‘s Indian Princess Aouda, who Fogg and companions rescue from a ceremonial burning alive. The only endearing character is Passepartout, played by an actor known only as Cantinflas. The Spanish gentleman’s gentleman, womanizer and gymnast gives the film is comical edge and heart.

Returning to MacLaine, I am reminded of how many older films used white, American actors in roles of a different ethnicity. I at first did not recognize MacLaine being so young and with tanned skin. She really does not look Indian, but it must have been more important/convenient to have an American actress play the role. This sort of casting I found most off putting in the 1944 Dragon Seed, which features an all-star American cast for a film set in China. Katharine Hepburn, Agnes Moorehead, Hurd Hatfield, and Walter Huston are made up to look Japanese and their presence perhaps points to a severe lack of valued, Asian actors in Hollywood at the time. Although a few Chinese actors are included in 1937’s The Good Earth, Paul Muni was cast as the lead character. That film, along with The Story of Louis Pasteur, have me avoiding all Muni roles now. I have also seen Abner Biberman cast — and painted — multiple times as characters of a different ethnic background. In his first role in 1939’s Gunga Din, Biberman plays and Indian character; in (again) Dragon Seed as a Japanese soldier; in 1945’s Back to Bataan as a Japanese Captain. I guess the guy just had that look.  The examples from my memory, however, all occurred in 1945 and earlier, so why could Hollywood still not locate a naturally exotic-looking character for Around the World in 80 Days? Did MacLaine really have the sort of star power to be a necessary contribution to the film?

Around the World in 80 Days is marked by a fabulous cast of famous side characters. A pudgy Peter Lorre shows up for a scene, Marlene Deitrich rattles off a few lines and Frank Sinatra gets photographed from behind for numerous shots before showing his face. The movie could really be enjoyed more as a game to spot the famous cameo than as a work of cinematic art. But at least I can check it off my list.

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