Shanghai Express (film)

Shanghai Express is a 1932 American pre-Code film directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook, Anna May Wong, and Warner Oland. It was written by Jules Furthman, based on a 1931 short story by Harry Hervey. Shanghai Express was the fourth of seven films von Sternberg and Dietrich made together.

Shanghai Express
Shanghai Express (1932) original poster.jpg
Original theatrical poster
Directed byJosef von Sternberg
Produced byAdolph Zukor
Written byJules Furthman
Harry Hervey (story)
Based on"Sky Over China" (also known as "China Pass")
by Harry Hervey
StarringMarlene Dietrich
Clive Brook
Anna May Wong
Music byW. Franke Harling
Rudolph G. Kopp
CinematographyLee Garmes
James Wong Howe
Edited byFrank Sullivan
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • February 12, 1932 (1932-02-12)
Running time
80 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguagesEnglish (primarily), German, French, Mandarin
Box office$827,000 (domestic rentals)[1]

Shanghai Express was released during the midst of the Great Depression. The film was remade as Night Plane from Chungking (1943) and Peking Express (1951).


In 1931, China is embroiled in a civil war. Friends of British Captain Donald "Doc" Harvey (Clive Brook) envy him because the fabulously notorious Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich) is a fellow passenger on the express train from Peking to Shanghai. Because the name means nothing to him, they inform him that she is a "coaster" or "woman who lives by her wits along the China coast" – in other words, a courtesan. On the journey, Harvey encounters Lily, who turns out to be his former lover Madeline. Five years earlier, she had played a trick on him to gauge his love for her, but it backfired, and he left her. She frankly informs him that, in the interim, "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily." When Lily clarifies that she still cares deeply for him, it becomes apparent that his feelings also have not changed when she inadvertently sees the watch she gave him with her photograph still in it.

Among the other passengers are fellow coaster Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), Lily's companion; Christian missionary Mr. Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), who at first condemns the two "fallen women"; inveterate gambler Sam Salt (Eugene Pallette); opium dealer Eric Baum (Gustav von Seyffertitz); boarding house keeper Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale); French officer Major Lenard (Emile Chautard) and a mysterious Eurasian, Henry Chang (Warner Oland).

Chinese government soldiers board and search the train and apprehend a high-ranking rebel agent. Chang then makes his way to a telegraph office and sends a coded message. Later, the train is stopped and taken over by the rebel army and its powerful warlord, who turns out to be Chang. Chang begins to question the passengers, looking for someone important enough to exchange for his valued aide. He finds what he wants in Harvey, who is on his way to perform brain surgery on the Governor-General of Shanghai. Chang offers to take Shanghai Lily to his palace, but she claims she has reformed. When Chang refuses to accept her answer, Harvey breaks in and knocks him down. Because Chang needs Harvey alive, he swallows (but does not forget) the insult. Chang then has Hui Fei brought to him in his quarters, where he forces himself on her.

The government releases Chang's man, but Chang decides to blind Harvey for his insolence. Out of love, Lily offers herself in return for Harvey's safe release. Harvey remains unaware of the danger that he is in and Lily's reason for going with Chang. Chang is stabbed to death by Hui Fei, who tells Harvey what has transpired. Finding Lily, the trio boards the train and departs before the body is discovered. The missionary Carmichael, trusting his instincts, gets Lily to reveal the truth about saving Harvey. She insists that he not tell Harvey because love must go hand in hand with faith. When the train finally reaches Shanghai safely, Lily offers Harvey her love unconditionally but demands the same in return. Harvey finally breaks down and embraces her.



Shanghai Express, L to R, Marlene Dietrich, Warner Oland, Clive Brook

Although set in China, there were few Chinese actors in the production.[2] In production from August to November 1931, Shanghai Express was released in 1932.[3][4]

Based on Henry Hervey's story ("Sky Over China," also known as "China Pass"), Shanghai Express was, in turn, loosely based on the May 6, 1923, incident in which a Shandong warlord captured the Shanghai to Beijing express train, where 25 westerners and 300 Chinese were taken hostage. All of the hostages captured in the Lincheng Outrage were successfully ransomed,[5][6] including Lucy Aldrich. Paramount studio heads were concerned that the Hays Office kept a close watch on the film due to the portrayal of the Reverend Carmichael and the depiction of the Chinese revolution.[7]

The story also echoes elements of Guy de Maupassant's short story "Boule de Suif" in the setting of travellers stopped in a country at war and a woman called upon to sleep with the commander in charge. However the denouement is altered, and while the travellers are released, the woman murders the commander and her fellow travelling companions change their attitude towards her.


Shanghai Express, L to R Anna May Wong, Marlene Dietrich

Shanghai Express was dubbed "Grand Hotel on wheels". Critically reviewed, the film was praised by Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times as a star vehicle for Marlene Dietrich. "Miss Dietrich gives an impressive performance. She is langourous but fearless as Lily." Other characters are also singled out, "Clive Brooks's performance is also noteworthy ..." "... Warner Oland is excellent as Mr. Chang and Anna May Wong makes the most of the rôle of the brave Chinese girl. Eugene Pallette serves splendidly as Sam Salt."[8]

Jonathan Spence, writing about the film's usefulness as a piece of history says that the real events of 1923 Lincheng Incident were far more dramatic but says that nonetheless it is "a wonderful film, with great performances by Dietrich – 'it took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily' – and Anna May Wong." [9]

The critic for Senses of Cinema called Shanghai Express a "riotous exercise in excess in every area; the visuals are overpowering and sumptuous; the costumes ornate and extravagant; the sets a riot of fabrics, light and space; and all of it captured in the most delectable black-and-white cinematography that one can find anywhere." He discusses the film's interest in the questions of race and colonialism and notes the "peculiar bifurcation" of the film's view of race; most of the respectable "white" characters in the film are seen as both flawed and racist. Only Dietrich, Wong, and to some extent "Doc" Harvey, have any "real moral agency." He calls the film "surprisingly feminist," with Dietrich being a "strong, dominating presence" and Wong's character her equal.[3]

Shanghai Express is memorable for its stylistic black-and-white chiaroscuro cinematography. Even though Lee Garmes was awarded the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, according to Dietrich, it was von Sternberg who was responsible for most of it.[4]

Awards and honorsEdit

Award Category Nominee Outcome
5th Academy Awards
(Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)[10]
Best Picture Shanghai Express
Winner was Grand Hotel
Best Director Josef von Sternberg
Winner was Frank BorzageBad Girl
Best Cinematography Lee Garmes Won


  1. ^ Shanghai Express (1932) Review, with Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong and Colin Brook
  2. ^ Leong 2005, pp. 181–182.
  3. ^ a b Dixon (2012).
  4. ^ a b Landazuri, Margarita. "Shanghai Express." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: July 2, 2015.
  5. ^ French 2006[page needed]
  6. ^ Nozinski 1990[page needed]
  7. ^ "Notes: 'Shanghai Express'." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: July 2, 2015.
  8. ^ Hall, Mordaunt. "'Shanghai Express' (1932): Marlene Dietrich in a brilliantly directed melodrama set aboard a train running from Peiping to Shanghai." The New York Times, February 18, 1932.
  9. ^ Spence (1996), p. 210.
  10. ^ "The 5th Academy Awards (1932) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved February 6, 2014.


  • Dixon, Wheeler Winston (2012). "Shanghai Express". Senses of Cinema (62).
  • French, Paul. Carl Crow, a Tough Old China Hand: The Life, Times, and Adventures of an American in Shanghai. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2006. ISBN 962-209-802-9.
  • Leong, Karen J. The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2005. ISBN 0-520-24422-2.
  • Liu, Cynthia W. "When Dragon Ladies Die, Do They Come Back as Butterflies? Re-imagining Anna May Wong." Countervisions: Asian American Film Criticism. Hamamoto, Darrel and Sandra Liu, (editors). Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000, pp. 23–39. ISBN 1-56639-776-6.
  • Nozinski, Michael J. Outrage at Lincheng: China Enters the Twentieth Century. Centennial, Colorado: Glenbridge Publishing Ltd., 1990. ISBN 978-0-9444-3507-6.
  • Spence, Jonathan, "Shanghai Express", in Carnes, Mark C. (ed.), Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies, New York: Holt, 1996, pp. 208–211

External linksEdit