Seeing as I just came back this Monday from Turner Classic Movies’ Film Festival in Holly-wood, I’m staying steeped in the luxurious world of black ‘n white. What better way to be in that world, than to talk about pre-code films.
And with thanks to Karen of Shadows and Satin and Danny of Pre-Code.Com for hosting this year’s Pre-Code Blogathon I get to wax on about one of the best of the genre, and read about a whole slew of other pre-code films from other writers.
Now those who know me, know I’m a film noir gal through and through. When I’ve com-plained about certain stodgy screen personas of the 40’s, a friend of mine told me to watch these gals during the Pre-Code era. Yowsa! She was right. My eyes are now fully opened. THIS is where these gals come to life and really LIVE. Hollywood took many chances on subjects in this short time period before the hammer was brought down by Willy Hays and his merry band of stuffed shirts. But while it flourished, there was a gold mine of films, many being touched on in this blogathon.
There’s Cukor and Hepburn. Capra and Stanwyck. Wyler and Davis. Ford and Wayne. Great collaborations these. ( See my collage here ). But among the greatest in Hollywood has to be Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. In five years from 1930 – 1935, they made seven films together: “The Blue Angel” “Blonde Venus” “The Scarlet Empress” “Dishonored” “Morocco” “The Devil Is A Woman” and the one I’d like to look talk about…
“SHANGHAI EXPRESS” ( 1932 )
IT’S NOT YOU, IT’S ME
The world depicted in “SHANGHAI EXPRESS” is far beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. Well, there was the wonderfully excessive and baroque “The Shanghai Ges-ture“ which von Sternberg did in 1941, which I love beyond reason.
Now to be honest, I had to get used to the cadence and artificiality of the words and gestures. The postering and affected stylized way of speaking was a bit off-putting. The dialogue felt written to me…not spoken. It didn’t quite bring the movie close to me, but watch it at arm’s length. So I did have to work a little to put all that aside and be comfortable with things…settle into 1932 and von Sternberg’s world-view. But I did settle in. And doing that made me enjoy the goings on on that train.
The movie is rich and full and packed with detail. Von Sternberg creates another world. The train was a character itself..all round and bellowing billowy steam and smoke. It looked so glamorous…and helpless when those rebels boarded it amidst the steam. There was something romantic about that train. Its whistle, a plaintive cry and the locomotive sounds were constant throughout the entire movie. ( Was that my crazy little Willie Fung as train conductor? Why, yes…it IS! ) The movie was a tiny bit “Grand Hotel.” Oh I don’t mean peopled with every one who was a big Star…but peopled with ev’ry Character Type:
* The judgmental minister
* The disgraced military man
* The stiff-upper lipped prig
* The self-centered busybody
* The evil rapacious Oriental
* The stubbornly ignorant and impotent American.
And then, there…is…DIETRICH.
“It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”
And I believe it too! It is 1932 and I am trying to picture, in a general sense, WHO the stars of the day were; you know, those who made the transition from Silents to the Talkies. And I guess no one here in America was any thing like Dietrich or Garbo.
I see why Madeleine Kahn could parody her so easily in “Blazing Saddles.” There’s so much that Dietrich gives you. She’s so rich with personality: her poses, her looks, her accent. I love her putting both hands on one hip…I loved the gesture she made with her hands when she thanks Clive Brook for saving her. She kind of holds onto him. He says he’d do this for anybody. As he pulls away from her, watch her handwave gesture. No one can tell you to do that. It’s your instinct as an Actor.
When the Minister can only offer Dietrich prayer instead of him taking up arms to help Clive Brook from Warner Oland‘s evil clutches…I loved Dietrich’s angered look. Smoke practically comes out of her nose she’s so steamed. She does pray, and von Sternberg has Dietrich in the sha-dows with only her clasped hands visible.
“One of them is yellow the other one, white. But both their souls are rotten!!”
And in the same sentence with Dietrich, with the same breath, and I must say carrying equal weight, for me, I must laud the great ANNA MAY WONG. Good golly Miss Molly she was fairly smoldering. I love her darkness and her deep voice. She’s as sleek and beautiful as satin. When we first see her she’s smoking a cigarette. PLEASE go back and take a look at the beginning of the movie when von Sternberg first introduces Anna May Wong. She stands in the background while the Minister rants and raves for a different compart-ment. Look at her back there, a bit in soft focus. Are you looking? With the subtle flick of her cigarette…she shows contempt.
She is truly a sister under the mink with Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily. They bond, unspokenly. I think back to Theresa Harris with Stanwyck in “Baby Face“ and how they were kind of on equal footing in the beginning of the movie but not later on. I can so totally imagine Wong’s Hui Fei and Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily tearing up the coast of China…or partying in the casinos and palaces of Monte Carlo. I see them both ordering room service and drinking champagne. I see men in top hat and tails calling on both women. I can see Dietrich and Wong in spectacularly different gowns, laughing at men, using men, smoking cigarettes and not being condemned for being free and easy in the world of pre-code. Wong commands attention. She’s not less than Dietrich. And if the times had given her a real solid chance…
I love her slow move-ments in this film. Keep your eyes peeled on Wong when she re-enters the compartment while Dietrich turns on the gramophone. Is it my imagination or do you see Dietrich’s quiet admiration; look at Wong’s indifference to Old Lady Haggerty in their compartment. Why, Anna May doesn’t even bother looking at the woman’s business card; she tosses it on the table while continuing to play Solitaire. She has Power. And when she does speak, she slams the old gal but good…in an off-hand way:
“I don’t…quite…know the standard of respectability that you demand in your boarding house Mrs. Haggerty.”
It’s the first time she speaks in the film and what a wallop. Her insolence is breathtaking. I imagine for 1932 audiences it might be the clarity and perfect diction from this Asian woman that was surprising. For me, it’s her mellifluous voice. Her economy of gesture draws you in. Later in the movie she doesn’t escape Oland’s advances as Dietrich does; she has no protector against the “fate-worse-than-death” that befalls her. Still, a little later in the film, she gets a lost in the shuffle when the big commotion ensues. But not to worry. You know what they say about payback.
I like how Von Sternberg doesn’t condemn or judge these ladies. The snooty folks in the film put them down, but we don’t. Yes, they are “women of the night” but they don’t seem to be bad sorts.
JUST AN OLD-FASHIONED LOVE STORY
But at the core of “Shanghai Express” is a love story between Dietrich’s and Clive Brook’s characters and how they inch back toward each other. For the life of me, I can’t see what she sees in Clive Brook. I suppose he represents Upper Class Respectability and he does love her…yet he seems like such a stick-in-the-mud to me.
BROOK: “It was difficult to find someone to take your place.”
DIETRICH: “Did you try very hard?”
BROOK: “Not particularly. I didn’t want to be hurt again.”
DIETRICH: “Always a bit selfish Doc, thinking of your own hurt.”
BROOK: “I can’t accept your reproach. I was the only one hurt.”
DIETRICH: “You left me without a word purely because I indulged in a woman’s trick to make you jealous. I wanted to be certain that you loved me and instead I lost you. I suffered quite a bit and I probably deserved it.”
But see, that’s ME again. I had to allow myself to flow with the pace that Von Sternberg sets in order to start to vibe with Brooks. He loves her in not a Gable way, but in a slow reserved intense way.
In another exchange between them, Dietrich receives a wire that Brook thinks is from her lover but she denies it. This is the crux of their relationship:
BROOK: “From one of your lovers?”
BROOK: “I wish I could believe you.”
DIETRICH: “Don’t you?”
DIETRICH: “Will you never learn to believe without proof?”
BROOK (with resignation): “I believe you Madeleine.”
She shows him the letter…from a lover.
DIETRICH: “When I needed your faith you withheld it. And now when I don’t need it and don’t deserve it, you give it to me.”
These two crazy kids are at cross-purposes. But he does come to her rescue when the General gets…ideas. And that’s what you really want; HIM to come to your rescue.
Everything is in such a heightened state of eroticism throughout this whole movie: Dietrich …Wong…the train…those sloooooooow dissolves. The final tracking shot von Sternberg uses as we follow Dietrich’s walk against the crowd, all men turning their heads to take a look at her. Through all this revolution and chaos and Asian “otherness”, Dietrich and Brook finally come together in the crowded train station. I like how she tells him that there is no one there but them. But isn’t that always the way love is for lovers? I absolutely adore the way Brook puts her arms around his neck for the final clinch.
Don’t worry. I’m not wearing rose-colored glasses when I think of the “Golden Age” of Hollywood and the studio system. The studios were factories. And Louis B., Warners, Laemmle, Goldwyn etc., would have done their darnedest to break von Sternberg and make him tow the company line. His creativity wouldn’t have stood a chance in the face of “Andy Hardy Gets Horny-Pt. III.” He seemed to have free rein in the pre-code era. “Shanghai Express” is a wonderful ride.
If you want to get a real detailed look into the fashion of this film, then check out this article GlamAmor writes for “Shanghai Express.”
Thanxx for reading. But whooaa Nellie, you’re not done yet. There are some great topics covered in this year’s blogathon. Click on these pre-code banners to read about “Safe in Hell” “Five Star Final” “Island of Lost Souls” “Call Her Savage” “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” Harlow, Stanwyck, Warren William…and much much more pre-codey things. By the way, I’ll be really curious to read about “The Sin of Nora Moran” because I actually got to meet the child star who portrays Zita Johann in that movie, Cora Sue Collins. More on her later: