Sternberg biographer John Baxter wrote “Had von Sternberg made only Shanghai Express, his position in the pantheon of filmmakers would be secure. Few films of any era are so integrated in décor and performance.” The script was by Jules Furthman, from a story by Harry Hervey. Cinematography was by Lee Garmes, who won an Oscar for his work here. Costumes were by Travis Banton who selected the feathers to be used -- Mexican fighting cock tail feathers, with their dark shine. Dietrich’s hats were by John Harburger. Art direction and set design were by Hans Dreier, Peter Ballbusch and Richard Kollorsz. Music was by various hands in the Paramount music department including Karl Hajos and Rudolph G. Kopp. The leads were Dietrich and the British actor Clive Brook who had starred, earlier, in Sternberg’s 1927 silent gangster film Underworld. Supporting actors are Anna May Wong, Warner Oland, Eugene Pallette, Lawrence Grant, Louise Closser Hale, Gustav von Seyffertitz, and Émile Chautard. Chautard, interestingly, had been a director at a studio in Fort Lee, N.J. who had hired the young Sternberg. The film was released in February, 1932, and it was the top-grossing film of that year, with better box office than Grand Hotel which beat it as best picture at the Oscars. Sternberg was nominated for a best director Oscar.
The train scenes were filmed along the Santa Fe in San Bernardino and Chatsworth, California, with over a thousand extras. Sternberg called it “A China . . .built of papier-mâché.” Baxter wrote “sets of towns and stations were built so close to the line that in rehearsals, the locomotive tore them down.” Critic Dave Kehr wrote “the surface of the screen is always abuzz with back and forth movements (systematically lateral, to imitate the movement of the train that gives the film its title), (and) interposed foreground objects and various kinds of filters (veils, clouds of steam, dirty windows, dense patterns of shadow).” Baxter commented “most interiors are shot through windows and past blinds, which further preserves the subjective ‘longitudinality’ of a train journey.” The British documentary filmmaker John Grierson wrote “Its photography is astonishing; its sets are expensive, and detailed to an ingenious and extravagant degree; its technique in dissolve and continuity is unique. The film might be seen for its good looks alone.” Psychologist and critic Rudolf Arnheim wrote “We think we are seeing not likenesses of real objects but a painter’s fantasies of blackness and lightness all run together.” Baxter also wrote “Calligraphy weaves through the story, papers whirling metaphorically in the wind of the train’s passing. We face a blizzard of newspapers, telegrams, passports, visas, and the omnipresent hanzi ideograms, spattered over almost every flat surface, cryptic and alien. . .”
Baxter again: “So intricately choreographed are the key scenes. . .that one doesn’t immediately notice the underlying oddities of acting technique. . .First and foremost an artist, (Sternberg) cares only for his personages’ ‘dramatic encounter with light.’” Clive Brook, when taunted that Sternberg treated his actors like puppets, retorted “Try working for him, and see if being a puppet is easy, and is enough to satisfy him.” Brook in a later interview recalled “I remember very clearly (Sternberg) telling us we were on a train, and he said that people on a train always talked in rhythm with the wheels. I was dashed if I could really see what he was driving at, but I do remember very well him bringing a metronome to the set, and saying ‘Now, that’s the rhythm of the wheels. Talk in time with that.’” Baxter wrote that “this type of dialogue management adds to the sense of unceasing, almost hypnotic movement.” About the story Baxter remarked “The other passengers on the Shanghai Express. . . exist only to remind us of the theme of belief at the heart of the relationship between Lily and (Doc). . .All, it emerges, have something to hide. . .Only Lily and Doc tell the truth.” As Shakespeare did with Polonius in Hamlet, many of the wisest things that are said come out of the mouth of one of the most unattractive characters, in this case, the seemingly narrow-minded missionary Carmichael, including “God remains on speaking terms with everybody” and “Love without faith, like religion without faith, doesn't amount to very much.”
It is, however, Dietrich’s appearance that is the center of the film. Critic David Thomson called this movie “still a monument of erotic art” and noted Sternberg’s “absolute determination to make a small, private movie that was a mockery of Hollywood conventions and a tribute to absolute love.” Sternberg reported “Ayn Rand told me that rarely had any film so impressed her, and when I asked her why she thought so, she spoke of a scene that was unforgettable to her: ‘The way the wind blows through the fur-piece around Marlene’s shoulder when she sits on the back platform of the train’.” Fashion design professor Drake Stutesman described one of Harburger’s hats to explain how her first appearance strikes us: “She wears a rimless cloche made of black iridescent feathers which are set in swirls over her head, although the feathers are not initially obvious. Across her face, in a flat shape, is a diagonal lined veil, ending just above her lip. . .her cloche’s shuttered, alluring veil and snug glistening skull-cap reveal sensual independence and tight-lipped call-girl secrets.” Baxter yet again: “even more delicately suggestive of motion are Lily’s plumes and furs, always in faint, stirring movement, brushed by a draft, quivering with the train’s vibration.”
It is reported that the actors playing the soldiers speak a southern Chinese language, Taishanese, not spoken in the part of China depicted. Dave Kehr reports that in this print there is a missing 15-second chunk of dialogue. It comes in the interview between Chang and Major Lenard that Lily translates. I’ll give you an idea of what was missing after the end of the film, so as not to reveal anything about the plot. I’ll let David Thomson have (close to) the last word on Shanghai Express: “The great trick of the films, of course, is to say they are about true love . . . instead of just sexes passing in the night coming and going. To that extent, all of Sternberg is a withering satire on the alleged function and entertaining purpose of those things called movies.” It is a pleasure for me to join you in watching this wonderful picture, Shanghai Express.