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.
Hmmm…I wonder how “THE LETTER“ would be with Bette Davis staring down Anna May Wong instead of Gale Sondergaard.
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:
Once again, Theresa, you have given us an excellent vision of what it is like to see a movie, and as usual excellently illustrated. It is also gratifying to see a discussion of one of the truly fine films of the “pre-code” era. Truth to tell, most of the movies from that time, just as today, are very bad. Brashness and naughtiness can certainly be refreshing in our cinematic diet, but there comes a time when we need to see a true work of art that requires no labels or qualifications to make it palatable.
I particularly enjoy your discussion of getting into the Sternberg style. I am reminded of the time quite a few years ago when little Sally, already a budding movie lover, complained about Morocco. “There’s no talking!”, she exclaimed. “It’s supposed to be a talking picture!” I wonder how she would feel about that film, or Shanghai Express, twenty years later.
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You and Celia certainly raised two movie-savvy kids. I would love to read or include any of their thoughts on classic films here on my blog. ( But young peoples’ lives are soooooooooooooo busy, I know. But I wouldn’t mind cinematic thoughts from their dear old Dad, either. ) Yes Bob, no need to romanticize the past “ye good olde days” with rose-colored glasses and thinking all films were hunky dory. I realize they weren’t ( though I am a fan of “B” films and lingerie. Sue me. ) But in von Sternberg’s case I think we both agree his status as great filmmaker is wholly justified. He and Dietrich do a remarkable tango in their motion pictures. I’ll try my best not to write a synopsised ( I make up words because I can ) review. One can go to IMDB for that. It’s a challenge trying to write about something in a different way. I’m so happy you think it’s working. Again, I thank you Bob for reading and thank you for your comments and compliments.
Wonderful read. I swear, Theresa, you and I react to some films in the same way. I, too was struck by the way Wong flicked her cigarette..wordless scene flowing with words. When I saw that scene the first time I remembered Wong in The Thief of Bagdad. Wong’s scenes in that silent classic draw you in, you end up watching only her no matter who she’s sharing the screen with. Those silent films certainly taught the actors/actresses the power of silence, stillness and the climatic one gesture that says more than a page of dialogue ever could. The end of the film when Brooks maneuvered Dietrich’s arms around his neck, was another gesture that said a million things about his acceptance and giving himself over to his love for her. Great film and you even put up a photo of Dietrich in my favorite look from the film, where she’s wearing the very close fitting clouche style hat with the veil. When I first saw this film I felt like that hat resembled a knight’s iron mesh. Like it was protecting her from all the ill will that her very existence inspired from those passengers with all their insecurities and hang-ups. Great job. Keep ’em coming.
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Thank you Donna. I like “Shanghai Express.” It’s not easy for me to sit through, b’cuz I do have to work with it; just a little adjusting of my mindset. I enjoy that my reaction to films matches another person’s. I like when that happens. I really liked three things you wrote: “wordless scene flowing with words” “when Brooks maneuvered Dietrich’s arms around his neck, was another gesture that said a million things about his acceptance and giving himself over to his love for her” and I really liked the imagery you conjure up with this one: “When I first saw this film I felt like that hat resembled a knight’s iron mesh. Like it was protecting her from all the ill will that her very existence inspired from those passengers with all their insecurities and hang-ups.” Wonderfully said. Thanks for reading.
You got me so wrapped up in the film that I feel as if I have seen it. One of life’s mysteries: Why haven’t I seen it?!
Brook is a strange actor to relate to for me. In “Cavalcade” rather stiff, in “On Approval” a dry riot, and in “Underworld” he made me fall in love with him.
Have you seen the one woman show with Doan Ly, “Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words”? It ran on PBS a couple of years ago and, fortunately, someone uploaded it to YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kk3WF2z3OAw
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Hi Caftan Woman – Thanks for reading and your comments. You ought to check out “Shanghai Express” once for your very own self. Work through the movie, watch it unfold. Brook took some getting used to for me as well. He’s no Gable or McCrea. But I got into the cadence of his slow rhythm. I’ve not seen “Cavalcade” or “On Approval” but I did see and enjoy him in his movie with Tallulah…do you know “Tarnished Lady“? A good one. And look at the two gals that could break down Brook: Bankhead and Dietrich. Thanks for the Anna May Wong link. I’d better get on THAT one quick, fast and in a hurry.
Loved your thorough and insightful post on a pre-Code that I’ve owned for years but never seen. I’m a big Marlene fan — I’m not sure why I haven’t watched this one yet. But your post makes me want to remedy that — and soon! Thanks so much for this great contribution to the blogathon!
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Hello “S & S.” It’s funny how we ALL have to “get around to seeing___________” ( whatever it is ). I think it gives us something to look forward to. Dietrich hasn’t won over my heart like some other 30’s gals, but I sure respect the heck out of her. She is truly and wholly unique, isn’t she? If my post gets you a little closer to seeing Dietrich and von Sternberg, I say “goody goody gum drops” to that! ( Have you seen his “Shanghai Gesture” with Tierney, Huston and Una Munson? Great movie! ) Oh, and to give YOU a shout-out, I’ve read your post on “Guest in the House” and LOVED it; I recommend all within eyesight of my reply to you here, to read your commentary and see this movie. It’s one of the most unsettling movies I’ve ever seen from the 1940’s because Anne Baxter is so bat-shit crazy. Errrr, uhmmmm…I mean her psychology is sooooo different from anything I’ve seen of lethal ladies. ( “Before you can say ‘Bob’s your uncle,'” cracked me up. ) I enjoy your writing. Why do I feel like you, Danny and I should collaborate on a script? Oooh, that was awkward, right? Ack! I shouldn’t have said that here, huh? ( I am…we should collaborate on a script. There! ) Thanks again for reading, Karen.
I urge folks to check out the Pre-Code Blogathon: Day One, Day Two, Day Three, and Day Four.
I’m so glad you liked Shanghai Express. I LOVE this film, and for all the reasons you stated. Scarlett Empress is also one that is drenched in those stylized, multi-layered frames that von Sternberg so excelled in. Great write-up too!
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Maria…hi there. Thanks for the compliment! I’m such a 40’s girl…but those over-the-top von Sternberg touches is like being in a candy store. Thanks again.
Great essay Tess. You made me want to see the film again and that’s the greatest compliment I can give to anyone. You really make the film live and play through your words and insight. I love Von Sternberg’s films and what you say about loving The Shanghai Gesture beyond reason is so true of me as well. It’s become a favorite. A true un-guilty pleasure and although The Devil is a Woman is my favorite Marlene-Von Sternberg film, Shanghai Express comes a a close second. Great writing.
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Hellooooooo Fernando! I should have known you’d be a von Sternberg guy…the layers of plot and set design is very mentally stimulating. I’m glad my writing is making folks want to see or re-visit a movie. If I’ve been having the opposite effect, somebody tell me ( privately ). I’d hate to scare folks away from classic film. I’ve always enjoyed your writing and vision.
Thanks for the great write-up. These are the films that require a bit o’ patience but when viewers donate that, I think these are the ones that snag fans into classic films because they have so many rewards for viewers, and for re-watching, too. I think all film fans will eventually succumb and ‘look backwards’ at classics, and then dig deeper and deeper.
Brooks vs Dietrich… Anna May… and a film of style.
Thank you Ollie. I agree with what you say. I think the only way to ease a person into classic films is…to show them classic films. Ha…von Sternberg is like a college graduate course. Maybe that’s why I’ve avoided him ( though “Shanghai Gesture” is quite accessible.
I wacthed this movie five years ago, when I should be studying or going to bed early… and I have no regrets! It’s so marvelous, I still have so many images printed in my brain! But I hope to revisit the movie, because it’ll air later this month here.
And, definetely, the train itself is a character – and a much better one than most of today’s movie characters.
Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
Hi there Lê ^_^ …thanks for reading my entry and commenting. You hit it right on the head when you say that the train is a better character than a lot of today’s movie characters. That got a laugh out of me. Von Sternberg isn’t always easy for me, but I feel like such a grown-up when I’m done. I will definitely ( translate to English ) and read your entry on “…Temple Drake.” Whew! THAT one is sure pre-code. I still have to fan myself when I think of Jack LaRue. ( Talk about a bad boy…
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