Despite a difficult, artistic personality, Joseph Von Sternberg was a deep romantic. While Marlene Dietrich showed in a long career that she had vast reservoirs of talent, Von Sternberg gave her career a lift in that series of films they made together from THE BLUE ANGEL to THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN. Remarkably, given the limitations of black and white film, Von Sternberg left some beautiful images (to this day) of the actress who may have been the most beautiful one in motion picture history.
SHANGHAI EXPRESS is set in the China of the Warlord period (as was THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN). A group of travelers are leaving a Chinese city to reach Shanghai, before the railway link is cut by the troops of the warlord. They include Dietrich, Anna May Wong (her best recalled talkie performance, as the bride to be Hui Fei), Clive Brook, Lawrence Grant, Eugene Palette, Warner Oland, Louise Closser Hale, Gustav Von Seyfertitz, and Emil Chautaud. Each has a distinct personality, which sometimes clashes with the others. Dietrich was formerly the fiancé of Brook, an English officer and gentleman, but he dumped her and she has become a high class prostitute. Grant is a holy roller minister, who is disgusted at the acceptance of that prostitute by some of the passengers. Palette (my favorite character in the film - his role is like a comic afterthought) is an even tempered gambler who is returning to Shanghai to look after some properties he has there. He has no problems accepting Dietrich at all. Also, he sees no problem with the use of racist comments (for that locale) as, "I wouldn't give him a Chinaman's chance!", which fits his gambler's instinct. Hale is the owner of a boarding house in Shanghai, who is friendly at first until she realizes what Dietrich does for a living (devilish Dietrich then asks Hale, in pretended shock, "What kind of a house do you run?", much to Hale's annoyance). Seyfertitz is a silent, really abrasive type, who wants to be left alone (it's interesting in the comments about racism towards Chinese in this film, few comment about Seyfertitz and his role and how it dovetails with residual anger towards Germans in the wake of World War I). Brook is going to another post, and is shocked at how Dietrich has ended as she has - but he can't help feeling some of the romantic feelings of five years before. Chautaud is headed to meeting his sister, whom he has not seen in years, and who expects him to be a great military hero. And Oland is a half Chinese half White passenger, who is not the quiet businessman he seems.
The train is stopped by the forces of the local warlord, whom everyone meets. Each is handled differently, as their secrets are wormed out of them. The best confrontation is the warlord and Seyfertitz, who learns a serious lesson in manners. But events soon turn about, due to an unexpected party, and move on to the satisfactory climax. I won't mention the details because this is a film that I think should be seen by everyone, for it's evocation of a China that is now somewhat lost (with it's teaming throngs of people pushing their ways to their destinations). China still has a really large population, but I don't think the disorder that Von Sternberg captures in his railroad stations scenes still exists. As a picture of the lost China of 1930, as a fascinating character study of over six characters, and as another romantic view of La Marlene, SHANGHAI EXPRESS remains a great film.