“SHANGHAI EXPRESS” (1932) Review

“SHANGHAI EXPRESS” (1932) Review

Many years have passed since I last saw the 1932 movie, “SHANGHAI EXPRESS”. Many years. In fact, the last time I saw it was on late night television back in the early 1990s. But I had such difficulty in finding it on VHS and later, on DVD that I never thought I would see it again . . . until I recently viewed it online.

“SHANGHAI EXPRESS” marked the fourth out of seven collaborations between director Josef von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich. Filmed and set in 1931, the movie featured a train journey in civil war-torn China from Beiping (now known as Beijing) and Shanghai. Among the passengers are missionary Mr. Carmichael, an inveterate gambler named Sam Salt, opium dealer Eric Baum, a boarding house keeper named Mrs. Haggerty, French officer Major Lenard, and mysterious Eurasian, Henry Chang.

Also among the passengers are a British Army doctor named Captain Donald “Doc” Harvey and two high-priced “coasters” (prostitutes) – Hui Fei and the notorious coaster, “Shanghai Lily”. The train journey marked the reunion between “Doc” Harvey and “Shanghai Lily”, who had been lovers five years ago, when he knew her as a woman named Magdalen. Back then, Magdalen had played a trick on Harvey to test his love for her, but it backfired and he left her. Upset over the loss of Harvey, Magdalen became a courtesan, And according to her, “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.” Lily informs Harvey that she still loves him and it becomes apparent that his feelings for her have not changed.

When government troops stop the train to search and arrest an enemy agent, the mysterious Henry Chang is revealed to be a powerful warlord, who is the agent’s commanding officer. He sends a telegram and hours later, rebel troops loyal to him stop the train and take the first-class passengers hostage. Chang intends to find the right passenger he can use as barter to get back his spy. And he finds that passenger in Captain Harvey, who is on his way to perform brain surgery on a British official in Shanghai.

“SHANGHAI EXPRESS” managed to earn three Academy Award nominations – Best Picture, Best Director for Sternberg and Best Cinematography for Lee Garmes. Only Garmes won a statuette. And it was a well deserved win. The movie’s look has gained a reputation for its lush and atmospheric photography, especially in the way he shot the movie’s star, Marlene Dietrich. A famous example of the movie’s photography could be found in the shot below:

There were other memorable moments that made the movie’s photography so memorable. Moments that include the passengers boarding the train, the takeover of the train by Chang’s men, and the two leads’ arrival in Shanghai. But the moment that really impressed me featured the train’s departure from Beiping. Not only did I find the photography in that scene impressive, but also Hans Dreier’s art direction.

As for its Best Picture and Best Director nominations . . . well, I am not so certain about that. According to Dietrich, von Sternberg was more responsible for the atmospheric photography than Garmes or an uncredited James Wong Howe. That is grand. However, that little tidbit only convinced me that Sternberg should have taken home the Best Cinematography statuette, not Garmes. But I must admit that I found the nominations for Best Picture and Best Director rather questionable. “SHANGHAI EXPRESS” is an entertaining film and an interesting example of the Pre-Code era of the early 1930s. I simply found the Best Picture and Best Director nominations a little hard to swallow.

“SHANGHAI EXPRESS” struck me as the type of story that would have made a perfect summer blockbuster, if given a bigger budget and a little more action. But Jules Furthman’s story did not exactly knock my socks off. And von Sternberg’s slightly turgid direction could not exactly light a fire under it. Also, there were certain aspects of the story that I found questionable. Considering the circumstances behind Magdalen’s breakup from Donald Harvey, I found it hard to swallow that this would drive her to become a high-priced prostitute in China for five years. I simply found that ludicrous. And Chang decided to take the train passengers hostage “before” discovering which one could be used to get his spy back. I could not help thinking it would have been more prudent to search for that valuable hostage first, before capturing the entire train.

For a movie that featured sex, travel, romance and intrigue; there was very little action in this film. I realize this movie was made and released in 1931-32, and not in 2011-12. But even for an early 30s movie, it had very little action, considering its story line. Also, good old-fashioned early 20th century racism reared its ugly head in Chang’s dealings with Magdalen and her fellow prostitute Hui Fei. The Eurasian warlord wanted both women, but was only willing to rape Hui Fei. In 1931-32 Hollywood movies, a non-white man could not soil the depths of a white woman, even if she was a whore.

The cast seemed pretty solid. But if I must honest, I could not find an exceptional performance within the cast. Marlene Dietrich gave a solid performance as the soiled Shanghai Lily. And that is the best I can say about her. She was not exactly at the top of her form as an actress in the early 30s. Garmes . . . or should I say von Sternberg’s photography contributed to her status as a film icon after a year or two in Hollywood, not her acting skills.

Dietrich was supported by the likes of Clive Brook, Anna May Wong, and Warner Oland. Of the three performers, the Swedish-born Oland ended up looking the best. Despite portraying the villainous Chang, he managed to give a relaxed, yet commanding performance without resorting to any hammy acting or posing. Anna May Wong also managed to restrain from any histronics. And her character’s actions near the end of the film saved the lives of the other passengers. But she barely had twenty lines, let alone ten lines in the movie; and spent the first two-thirds of the movie looking iconic . . . and playing cards. Why on earth did von Sternberg cast British actor Clive Brook as Dietrich’s love interest, British Army Captain Donald “Doc” Harvey? Why? He was so wrong for the role. Brook was perfect as the patriarch of the Marryot family in Noel Coward’s 1933 sentimental family saga, “CAVALCADE”. But as the dashing, yet bitter Captain Harvey, he seemed out of his depth. And his chemistry with Dietrich struck me as rather flat. I hate to say this, but he was no Gary Cooper. Thankfully, other supporting players such as Eugene Pallette, Louise Classer Hale and Lawrence Grant provided plenty of comic relief and color as some of the other train passengers.

I realize that “SHANGHAI EXPRESS” is one of those highly regarded films from the Pre-Code Era. But after watching it, I could not help but feel that it might be slightly overrated. Yet, I could not deny that despite its flaws, it is a beautiful and exotic-looking film with an entertaining story. More importantly, it is an example of Josef von Sternberg’s work and Marlene Dietrich’s beauty at their heights.

“PLATINUM BLONDE” (1931) Review

“PLATINUM BLONDE” (1931) Review

For over seven decades, many movie fans and critics have ignored the 1931 comedy, “PLATINUM BLONDE”. They have dismissed it as some mediocre, obscure film from the early talkies period deemed unworthy of any real film criticism. But due to recent interest in that particular era, the film’s reputation has grown over the past several years.Directed by Frank Capra and written by Jo Swerling, “PLATINUM BLONDE” is a romantic comedy about a newspaper reporter named Stew Smith, who becomes romantically involved with Ann Schuyler, a wealthy young socialite, after writing an expose about one of her brother’s romances. Unaware of the romantic feelings of a female colleague named Gallagher for him, the reporter marries the socialite. However, both Stew and Ann ending up assuming that the other is the one whose lifestyle must change.

Personally, I believe that “PLATINUM BLONDE” is a decent effort by Frank Capra during the early period of sound. Swerling’s script provided an interesting and comic portrayal of a marriage doomed by the couple’s class differences and their own arrogance. Surprisingly, I suspect that many moviegoers in 1931 saw the Ann Schuyler character as the cause behind the marriage’s failure. After all, she was a woman and from a wealthy background. Many probably felt that she should have been the one to change her lifestyle for the sake of her marriage. The movie did portray Stew giving in to her demands on two counts – living with her family and changing his wardrobe. But he did so, protesting rather loudly and still believing that Ann should surrender to his demands. Instead of condemning both Stew and Ann for their joint failure to compromise for the sake of their marriage, Capra and Swerling decided to portray Ann as the “villain”. Even worse, the script provided Stew with a potentially perfect mate in Gallagher, after his marriage ended before the film’s last reel. Watching a professional journalist like Gallagher portray the little housewife, fetching and cooking for the now free Stew did not exactly leave a glowing feeling within me.

Many of the early talkies had a reputation for being nothing more than a filmed play. Most of ”PLATINUM BLONDE” managed to avoid getting bogged down with a slow pace. I found most of the movie surprisingly fast-paced. This is a miracle, considering that most movies during that period were bogged down in pacing, due to the studios’ inexperience and insecurities on how to deal with sound technology for films. Although most of ”PLATINUM BLONDE” managed to move at a brisk pace, the scene featuring Stew’s first meeting with Ann and the rest of the Schuyler family did not. Only during this sequence, did the movie threatened to bog down into a filmed play. Not even Swerling’s sharp dialogue or actor Robert Williams’ frenetic acting could prevent this.

I have heard that the movie was supposed to be a vehicle for Loretta Young and the movie’s original title was “GALLAGHER”. I also heard that “PLATINUM BLONDE” was supposed to be a showcase the 20 year-old Jean Harlow and the color of her hair (which was one of several aspects that made her a star), hence the name of the movie’s title. Yet, Loretta Young ended up receiving top billing. Frankly, I found this confusing. It seemed obvious to me that Robert Williams was the real star of this particular movie, given his exuberant performance. It is a mystery to me why Columbia Pictures’ boss, Harry Cohn, could not see this. Sure, I could see why they pushed Harlow’s role, considering that she was fast becoming a sex symbol. But Young’s role seemed a lot smaller than both Williams and Harlow’s roles. Why give Williams second billing? He deserved first billing. Another aspect of “PLATINUM BLONDE” that took me by surprise was that it did not seem much of a Pre-Code film to me. Despite Jean Harlow’s presence, the movie seemed too much like a Frank Capra film, with its emphasis on class warfare. Despite the main male character involved with one woman and another woman desperately in love with him, there is very little hint of sex or sexual innuendo in this film. The sexiest scene I could recall featured Harlow and Williams’ horseplay on a sofa that struck me more as adolescent than something worthy of a Pre-Code film or anything Post-Code.

Many critics and fans have claimed that Harlow had been miscast as an heiress. Apparently, many seemed to have the notion that Harlow was incapable of portraying a role that did not call for her to be a spunky member of the working-class. First of all, Harlow did not come from such a background. She came from an upper middle-class or upper-class Kansas City family and was indulged as a child. Which made her, in my opinion, capable of portraying an heiress. And she did a pretty damn good job, as far as I am concerned. Loretta Young was sweet and spunky as the love-sick Gallagher. However, her role did not struck me as strong enough to warrant her top billing. I have heard about Robert Williams in the past and comments about his road to stardom being cut off by sudden death from peritonitis three days after the film’s release. After seeing his exciting performance in “PLATINUM BLONDE”, I believe that he had what it took to become a star in 1930s Hollywood. He was generally good-looking, talented, adjusted to talking pictures like a duck to water, and possessed a strong screen presence. Alas . . . fate had something else in store for him.

And as much as I liked “PLATINUM BLONDE”, I find it difficult to get over my distaste toward the movie’s portrayal of the Stew Smith-Ann Schuyler marriage. I did not care for Capra and Swerling’s decision to make Ann the “villain” of the marriage, considering that both she and Stew were determined to be the one who controlled the marriage. I found the scene featuring Stew’s introduction to the Schuyler family rather long and slow-paced. And I believe that Loretta Young’s top billing undeserved. But aside from one scene, Capra directed a fast-pasted and entertaining movie filled with sharp dialogue written by Jo Swerling. And audiences were given a brief glimpse of the potential stardom that actor Robert Williams could have enjoyed, if fate had not stepped in.