A love story crossed with a bit of political intrigue, Shanghai Express takes place during the middle of a civil war in China. Marlene Dietrich stars as Madeleine, who has become better known as “Shanghai Lily”; she’s a “coaster”, a woman who — we are told by one of the other train passengers — “lives by her wits” on the China coast. Although it isn’t stated directly, the heavy implication is that she is a prostitute. But, just like Pretty Woman some sixty years later, the film doesn’t view this as a condemnation of her character (though other passengers are certainly scandalized), and much of the narrative thrust of the film is her attempting to regain the faith and love of her former fiance, played by Clive Brook.
Brook plays a British Army doctor who has been sent to perform surgery on a major Chinese general. But the unexpected encounter with his former fiancee, and her fallen reputation, has him significantly distracted. As do the other members of the train, which include some characters who are there for comic effect, and some who serve as dramatic foils. Lawrence Grant plays a reverend who initially condemns “Shanghai Lily”‘s reputation and blusters over the scandal of being on the same train; his progression to taking her side of things is one of the more interesting character arcs to watch in the film. Another key character is a Shanghai local played by Warner Oland, a Swedish man who often played Asian characters in Hollywood films of the time, including the famous Charlie Chan (Hollywood was gradually starting to cast actual Asians, including Anna May Wong in this film, but they were still generally supporting roles.) Oland’s character is described as half-white, giving a hand-wave to the cross-racial casting, but he is fiercely proud of his Chinese heritage and not of his European heritage. He serves to bring in the element of suspense in the film as he has plans for some of the passengers.
It is difficult to know what to say about Shanghai Express. I enjoyed the film, but it’s a matter of intangibles that made it enjoyable. I wouldn’t be able to point to anything in particular in Josef von Sternberg’s direction, or in the plot or the acting, that makes this a great film. And yet the whole is definitely a worthwhile experience. If anything, I would be inclined to say that what makes the film work is that the main characters given an impression of complexity beneath the surface; they’re intelligent characters, and they each progress in their views on the short journey to Shanghai.