Marlene Dietrich & Anna May Wong: Shanghai Express (1932) The Merciful Temptress or Veils on a Train & The Quiet Cultural Warrior or Mythos of the Dragon Lady With a Dagger

‘’Dietrich is something that never existed before and may never exist again. That’s a woman.” -Maurice Chevalier

”A shaft of white light used properly can be far more effective than all the color in the world used indiscriminately.” 
– Josef von Sternberg – Fun in a Chinese Laundry, Mercury House, San Francisco, 1988)

For a century the divine Marlene Dietrich in her enigmatic work in cinema has been a radiant star of the silver screen. A torch singer, Sphynx-like, a seductress in a world where her mystique remains intangible and beyond adequate description. A torch songstress – she was the quintessential cabaret entertainer of Weimar-era Germany. Dietrich began her cabaret performances in 1954, which lasted two decades.

Marlene Dietrich has a world-weary appeal, the goddess of reflexive poise, self-possessiveness, an inscrutable aura of boundless insight, and a sort of subdued confidence. Next to Bette Davis, Dietrich has stirred a fascination in me – maybe it’s her indescribable physicality, the orb of dancing light across her smile. She’s an elusive divinity.

And through her alluring glamour and fluid sexuality, she became an international symbol, a timeless, enchanting muse, whose elegance and allure mesmerized both men and women alike. Her sensuality is daring, she held aloft her humor with courageous ease, and her inimitable style and aspect, are timeless.

Dietrich started as a cabaret performer and worked as a silent film actress at the height of the Weimar years, after which she abandoned Berlin at the dawn of the 1930s and headed for Hollywood with off-screen lover and director Josef von Sternberg.

In the late 1920s, Dietrich gained prominence on the German stage, drawing comparisons to Greta Garbo in the German press. In early 1930, director Josef von Sternberg came to Berlin to shoot The Blue Angel. He’d been searching for an actress who could ‘’exude the electric eroticism of the movie’s cruel temptress.’’ (Peter B. Fling NY Times 1992). Once he saw Dietrich on stage he found his purely malevolent Lola Lola who corrupts, demeans, humiliates, and ultimately destroys Emil Jennings cast as the bewitched well-respected elderly professor. The role won her a Hollywood contract, and with her collaboration with von Sternberg, a legend emerged.

(Eingeschränkte Rechte für bestimmte redaktionelle Kunden in Deutschland. Limited rights for specific editorial clients in Germany.) Marlene Dietrich (left) as ‘Lola-Lola’ and Rosa Valetti (centre) in the UFA – movie ‘Der Blaue Engel’ (‘The Blue Angel’). Director: Josef von Sternberg – 1930 Also available in color: Image Number 622600 (Photo by ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Dietrich’s characters function both as objects of desire (her face drinks in light like a Brancusi sculpture) and agents of desire, in the grip of consuming, concentrated loves that frequently demand pain or martyrdom. Von Sternberg places this complex figure into many different contexts, from street prostitute (“Dishonored”) to absolute monarch (“The Scarlet Empress”). He even tries, with mixed success, to imagine her as an ordinary, middle-class wife and mother (“Blonde Venus”). (David Kehr NY Times 2012 article The Well-Lighted Agent of Desire)

Dietrich and von Sternberg ‘’embarked on a mad experiment to push photographing well to the furthest limits of the possible … Who cast her as angel and devil – amoral blithely destructive – detected a lustrous vitality beneath this mask of restraint- and she was, in fact, fiercely ambitious – but the pose of not giving a damn, which she made challenging and seductive was what he wanted.’’ – (Imogen Sara Smith)

From Dietrich – flowed the look of delirious eroticism, an inscrutable quintessence as she became a golden-haired blonde, her face framed by lighting and makeup that made her arched brows, cheekbones, and mesmeric blue eyes aristocratic, a persona so richly textured as the roles she embodied: a siren, victim, predator, or lover.

In her role in Morocco in 1930 she adopted male attire which was used to indicate sexual experience. (Source: Catherine Constable -Thinking in Images: Film Theory, Feminist Philosophy and Marlene Dietrich).

Not merely provocative -Dietrich’s transcends gendered attire, extending beyond donning men’s clothing or bestowing a kiss upon a woman’s surprised lips in the crowd, prompting startled, bashful laughter. She effortlessly appropriates other attributes typically reserved for men: their privilege, self-assuredness, sexual dominance, and emotional detachment. What truly distinguishes her, even more than her nonchalant mastery of her role and her blithe signals, is her unmistakable air of indifference.

‘’Aloof and calm, she continues her meticulous preparations: dusting off and donning a top hat, straightening her tie, slipping into a tailcoat. She strolls onstage and surveys the jeering audience inscrutably through a scrim of cigarette smoke, from under eyelids dragged down by the weight of knowingness and thick, curling eyelashes. The close-ups is killing in its beauty.’’ – Imogen Sara Smith – Morocco (1930)

The Dietrich persona, embodied by the aphrodisiacal Lola-Lola, the iconic cabaret songstress invested in a rakish top hat and sheer silk stockings in The Blue Angel in 1930, was a reflection of a non-conformist, an unrestrained libertine who picked her lovers, made her way in the world financially, and regarded sexuality as an intriguing pursuit of pleasure. Up on the screen, Dietrich personified the audience’s wish fulfillment.

‘’In emotional scenes, she often has a look of blank shock and numbness, sometimes with a fleeting wildness in her dry eyes – the look of someone who cannot lose control, who freezes up in the face of strong feeling. It is a limitation used to best advantage, make her seem inaccessible rather than inadequate.’’ (Imogen Sara Smith)

Critic Kenneth Tynan described Lola Lola’s self-expression as “a serpentine lasso whereby her voice casually winds itself around our most vulnerable fantasies… She has sex but no positive gender. Her masculinity appeals to women and her sexuality to men.”

She was a fashion trendsetter on screen and in her personal life, often dressed in tailored trousers and mannish attire. The actress pioneered the “Dietrich silhouette,” demonstrating that women could maintain their femininity while wearing masculine clothing that still highlighted a slender figure with subtle hips and bust line.

Dietrich herself manifested an individualist charisma in her personal and public persona as with many of her earlier roles, Mademoiselle Amy Jolly in Morocco 1930, Marie Kolverer -(X27) in Dishonored 1931, Helen Faraday in Blonde Venus 1932, and the corrupting vamp Concha Perez in The Devil is a Woman 1935 which was her particular favorite.

von Sternberg & Dietrich –Blonde Venus 1932

“The cool, bright face that didn’t ask for anything, that simply existed, waiting — it was an empty face, he thought; a face that could change with any wind of expression. One could dream of anything. It was like a beautiful empty house waiting for carpets and pictures. It had all possibilities — it could become a palace or a brothel.” (Erich Maria Remarque).

Eventually, the top executives at Paramount wanted to maintain the box office attraction of their big investment in Dietrich and blocked von Sternberg from directing her in any other pictures. He was losing money for them with his opulent storylines that were growing more self-indulgent and the narratives anemic. They cast her in two successful romantic comedies, her first Desire (1936) with Gary Cooper as her leading man. Then a satirical western Destry Rides Again in 1939 where Dietrich plays a free-spirited fireball who sings in a saloon and seduces Sheriff James Stewart. There’s a raucous scene that features a hair-pulling, face-slapping brawl between Dietrich and Una Merkel.

Some of her more well-known films include – As a German Noblewoman in von Sternberg’s The Scarlett Empress in 1934, The Garden of Allah in 1936, as Lady Maria Barker in Ernst Lubitsch’s Angel in 1937, As Bijou the saloon singer in Tay Garnett’s Seven Sinners in 1940, as the saloon owner Cherry Malotte in The Spoilers in 1942, she played a glamorous gypsy in Mitchell Leisen’s Golden Earrings in 1947, as a manipulative Berlin cabaret singer in Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair 1948, as a conniving murderess in Hitchcock’s Stage Fright in 1950. As a saloon manager hiding outlaws in Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious in 1952, as a duplicitous wife in Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution in 1957, as the cynical madame of a brothel in Orson Welle’s Touch of Evil in 1958, and as an aristocratic widow in Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg in 1961. Her last picture was in 1978 – she played Baroness von Semering alongside David Bowie in Just a Gigolo.

‘’Touch of Evil provided Miss Dietrich with one of her most memorable lines. She admonished the character played by the corpulent Welles to “lay off the candy bars.” (Peter B. Flint New York Times 1992)

During WWII she became a symbol of free Germany, outspoken against Hitler, financed the escape of many people from Nazi occupation, and entertained Allied troops and prisoners of war. ‘’Tirelessly and good-humoredly, she roughed it with the G.I.’s, standing patiently in food lines, washing with snow, and sleeping in dugouts and ruins, often near the front lines. She sang her movie songs, the international wartime ballad “Lili Marlene” and some current songs, and even played a musical saw, a skill she had mastered for the Berlin stage.’’ (Peter B. Flint New York Times 1992)

The troops fell in love with her. How could they not? After the war, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor the United States Government bestows. France named her a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor and Belgium dubbed her a Knight of the Order of Leopold.

After 5 decades on stage, film, television, and lilting torch songs in cabarets, Dietrich died in 1992 at the age of 90 at her flat in Paris.

The inscrutable Anna May Wong, the pioneering Chinese-American actress, was born in 1905 above her family’s Chinese laundry in Los Angeles, Wong quickly developed a passion for the world of cinema. From a young age, she earned a reputation as the ‘curious Chinese child’ who would frequently visit film sets in Chinatown. At the age of 17, Wong seized her debut leading role in the silent film “Toll of the Sea” in 1922. Throughout her career, Wong encountered obstacles and racial discrimination. Not only were roles limited due to the film industry’s decision to primarily cast Western actors in leading Asian roles, but Hollywood and the Hays Code had very harsh rules against miscegenation, which restricted her from any on-screen kisses with non-Asian actors, even if that actor was portraying an Asian character. Further limiting her career was the desire producers had to cast Western actors in leading Asian roles.

In Shanghai Express, Wong’s performance as Hui Fei was vivified with dignity and primacy which challenged the pervasive stereotypes and expectations Hollywood had of Asian actresses during the 1930s.

At the beginning of her career, the Chinese press with the addition of the Nationalist government had been critical of Anna May Wong for her on-screen sexuality that perpetuated negative stereotypes of Chinese women.

On the screen goddess Anna May Wong was fond of saying, that she died a thousand deaths.

In Tiger Bay she sacrifices her life – as Lui Wong she stabs her wrist with a poisoned ring. Dying, she whispers an ancient Chinese poem. As Shosho the London flapper and ”Chinese Dancing Wonder,” was shot in the chest by a jealous suitor, she appeared as Taou Yuen, in Java Head 1934 an exquisite Qing Dynasty princess transported to cold grey Victorian Bristol, she indulges in opium while wearing spectacular Peking Opera costume and reviled by high society and righteous members of the church -Taou Yuen’s grace and decency are ignored, and as Wong dignity rises above the dialogue the film is riddled with contradictions. With the cast of characters condemning her “barbaric” rites, the undertone is that Chinese culture is like a dangerous drug like opium which provokes the senses and awakens forbidden desires.

As Lotus Flower in The Toll of the Sea (1922) Wong plays an innocent Hong Kong girl abandoned by her unambitious American lover, she throws herself into the provoking sea.

As Shosho, it was her erotic triumph in 1929 British silent ‘Picadilly’ directed by E. A. Dupont – set in the backdrop of London, she outshines Gilda Gray, known as the “Queen of Shimmy,” in her role as Shosho, the scullery maid who captures the affection of a nightclub owner who happens to be Gilda’s lover. She becomes an overnight sensation when he puts her on stage.

Perhaps it had something to do with her costume — a scanty, gilded interpretation of a vaguely Indonesian warrior outfit, purchased (at Shosho’s insistence) in Limehouse, London’s Chinatown. More likely it’s Wong’s intensity, toughness, and vibrant sensuality, showcased in a film that played off the fears and temptations of miscegenation. (From The Dragon Lady and the Quiet Cultural Warrior By Leslie Camhi New York Times article 2004)

Wong’s big break came a year later when Hollywood’s jeweled prince Douglas Fairbanks cast her in his over-the-top Orientalist pageant The Thief of Baghdad in 1924.

The Mongol slave girl, attired in a revealing bikini, turns traitor to her mistress—a Persian princess and the object of Fairbanks’s affection—by acting as a spy for a Mongol prince. Wong’s outrageous scene-stealing moment comes when she tremors and writhes as Fairbanks’s knife takes away her last breath.

That epic picture made Wong an international star, but it was not enough to deliver her from supportive roles that added to her ‘Oriental intrigue’ and ‘local color’ while white actors were made up in ‘yellowface’ like Warner Oland who starred in the Charlie Chan detective series, were routinely cast as Asians. In addition to being relegated to cultural caricatures, the taboos of mixed-raced romance kept Wong from taking on the lead role if she couldn’t kiss her co-star. As a seductress, she was doomed to certain death. Her faithless servants, gangsters’ molls, and formidable dragon ladies — in the Hollywood parts that awaited her— she often met unfortunate ends.

“I was tired of the parts I had to play… Why should we always scheme, kill, (and) rob?”

In the casting of the film The Good Earth based on Pearl S. Buck’s popular novel, Wong deeply wanted to play the lead role of Olan and fought hard to be cast in the part but was passed over for German actress Luise Rainer. Most insulting, she was offered the part of an unsympathetic character in the film, which she refused. “If you let me play O-lan, I will be very glad. But you’re asking me – with Chinese blood – to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.”

Anna May Wong’s sophistication, both in front of the camera and in her personal life, was a captivating blend of traditional Chinese dress and the glamorous fashion of 1930s Hollywood. Wong dedicated herself to infusing authenticity into even her most minor roles by meticulously incorporating genuine Chinese hairstyles and costumes, which she often used from her own collection.

Though her elegance and allure and pursuit of authenticity are undeniable, Wong’s characters could still be seen as the embodiment of the racist stereotypes perpetuated by a studio system that struggled to envision and articulate positive roles for Asian actors. She wishes to break the bonds of the Dragon Lady trope.

Publicity stills from Limehouse Blues (1934)

On January 14, 1932, a Chinese newspaper ran with the headline “Paramount Utilizes Anna May Wong to Produce Picture to Disgrace China.

“Her specialty is to expose the conduct of the very low caste of Chinese,” the editorial ran on, citing her turn as “a half-robed Chinese maid in The Thief of Bagdad [sic]. Although she is deficient in artistic portrayal, she has done more than enough to disgrace the Chinese race.”

In Shanghai Express, Anna May Wong gives an enigmatic performance as Hui Fei, the elliptical warrior who brings an extra layer of agency and nuance to the film as her character converges with Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily. Hui Fei is acute, resourceful, and instrumental in the prevailing plot line.

Wong’s portrayal of Hui Fei is a marked departure from the conventional exoticized and orientalization of surrendering girls she was more often confined to by Hollywood during the era.

Anna May Wong at Hollywood’s Music Box Theater for the opening of The Old Woman 1933.

As Hui Fei, Wong manifests ‘’an inordinately graceful Confucian courtesan with nerves of steel (and traveling companion to Marlene Dietrich’s notorious prostitute Shanghai Lily), who disappears from a crowded train platform amid the flashes of news photographers after collecting her reward for murdering a brutal Chinese warlord… Wong’s presence in “Shanghai Express” can be seen as a counterpoint to Marlene Dietrich’s character. While Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily is an embodiment of Western allure and independence, Wong’s Hui Fei represents a more complex portrayal of an Asian woman navigating her own path in a racially charged and patriarchal world. This contrast between the two actresses and their characters adds depth to the film and highlights the intersectionality of their struggles in the film industry.’’ -(Leslie Camhi The Dragon Lady and the Cultural Warrior -New York Times article 2004)

During the 1930s the radically individualistic Wong traveled between Europe and Hollywood and in 1936 she embarked on a year’s stay in her spiritual homeland China, in search of a better way to represent Chinese women in her work, where she had been subjected to roles as women of little morality who live by the flesh.

Like numerous actors from her era, Wong concluded her career in the emerging realm of television. She briefly took on a role in “The Gallery of Madame Liu Tsong,” portraying a Chinese art dealer and detective entangled in the subterfuge of the international art world. Her ultimate promotional photograph, captured during her appearance in “Portrait in Black” (1960), a film she hoped would ignite her career once more, features her as a maid, caressing a Siamese cat. She died a year after the film’s release.

Getting on that Shanghai Express…

‘’The film seems languorous, eternal, a fever from which no one will ever awake, stitched together with the most extended lap dissolves’’ – Wheeler Winston Dixon

‘’A delicious chop sue of melodramatic hokum – seems ever more subordinate to her image: reclining behind gauze curtains, gazing through a window with one hand splayed on the glass, or leaning against a door smoking in a darkened train compartment. When she pulls her hair back tightly for a moment from a face sculpted by shadows or tips her head upward along – almost detaching themselves from the film to become the iconic series of stills that photographer Don English made of his train scene… It is in these moments Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily is pondering the tragic irony of losing the man she loves after nobly sacrificing herself for him– (Imogen Sara Smith)

During Dietrich and von Sternberg’s white-hot period in the 1930s at Paramount, Dietrich was ready to play another prostitute – this time it would be a ‘woman on a train” She can be seen to construct herself as an illusion in the ways that she plays up her decadent role – in a space of defiance wearing gossamer-like gowns by Travis Banton that reveal her well-honored gams.

Josef von Sternberg und Marlene Dietrich in Deutschland. Photographie. 1930 Josef von Sternberg & Marlene Dietrich in Germany. Photograph. 1930

‘’Paramount had been ‘saved by the movie Morocco gaining a $2 million profit and nominated for four Academy Awards including one for Marlene It was the Depression and it was squeezing everyone it incited struggles at the New York office where Jesse Lasky’s assistant Emanuel Cohen was ascendant. He loved being a co-founder and taking credit for it. Schulberg would have to report to him about Marlene’s projects He didn’t care about her mystery and glamour because her last pictures she didn’t get the man. He considered Dishonored to be a “FAIRLY COMPLETE FLOP” Cohen wanted Dietrich to “GET HER MAN” He wanted better box office results and couldn’t care less about an artistic triumph…

… Shanghai Express began shooting in late September, its “love pirate” star more defiantly, sleekly erotic than ever. The whole moviegoing world would soon chant along with her on-screen, “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lili.” The line is the epitome of camp excess, but it is self-mockery, too, in a picture that looks and plays like a melodrama but is also an ironic essay on deception, hypocrisy, and redemption through love, Sternberg’s standard theme.’’ (Steven Bach -Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend)

It is Dietrich’s third American film and in this picture, her beauty is nothing less than galvanic. A succession of frames creating still after still, that captures her sculpted ivory face revealed within her marvelous black feathers like a mythic ethereal corvid, her cryptic veils and deifying furs that wrap her in the majesty of light and shadow. The atmosphere of mystery that Dietrich manifests is more by design than merely an exploration into the use of light and shadow. ”There’s a scheme of things,“ Dietrich says.

‘’The primacy of style in von Sternberg’s films, their devotion to surfaces, can be radically irreverent. A close-up of Dietrich’s hands folding in prayer is almost blasphemous, it is so elegantly presented: the jeweled and manicured fingers rising like lilies in a pool of light surrounded by blackness.’’ (Imogen Sara Smith)

‘’It’s 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, more than enough to convince even the most superficial viewer that when black-and-white ceased to be a commercially viable production medium, the world lost a true art form, which colour film – as Sternberg’s quote above suggests – can never hope to replace.’’ – (Wheeler Winston Dixon)

Von Sternberg’s treatment of light and shadow working with a black & white palate conjures visual awakening with fragments of luminosity caught in the silver spaces, inky darkness, and bijou margins within each frame. Even the smoky clouds of Dietrich’s cigarettes seem to emerge as significant to be almost volcanic steam. With Shanghai Express, the vivid romance blossoms between Dietrich and the photographic magic of the camera, though her acting is so much more than just artful poses. And more than the actress and her wooden leading man Clive Brook, one could say there is a farther-reaching sensual fluidity between Shanghai Lily and Anna May Wong’s remote yet scorching Hui Fei.

I found myself indulging in a reverie about the pair who exhibit a more palpable chemistry bolting off the train and running off together in the end.

Anna May Wong never wed, and I’m not one to embrace Hollywood gossip but the murmur was and for the sake of letting the cloud of fantasy drift into my window I’ll add this here: She was tied romantically with several white male directors and the bigger scandalous back then was that she and Marlene Dietrich (whose sexual appetites were mythical) were lovers. But according to Bach’s biography, Paramount insisted on Dietrich getting her man.

While Marlene Dietrich and director Josef von Sternberg were the main attraction in the reviews of Shanghai Express, taking a fresh look at the film it could be said that Anna May Wong’s intense portrayal of Hui Fei is as dynamically parallel with Dietrich and their imbued sexual chemistry might have fueled the rumors about a romantic relationship between the legendary actresses.

Though Dietrich in all of Sternberg’s work is portrayed as the strong driving force in her pictures, in Shanghai Express she shares a formidable space with Anna May Wong who can be seen equally as the film’s protagonist.

In this way, it might be envisioned as feminist. Both have entered into a sisterhood as temptresses and women of ill repute, they are bonded by their calling, occupy their close quarters on the train, playing irreverent jazz on their phonograph and not hiding their contempt for the men along the rough journey to Shanghai. For Lily, there may lie a vague hint of regret but never does it unveil itself as moral humiliation and self-hatred.

The film opens with a spirited landscape set at the Peking station. Von Sternberg designed the atmospheric sets alongside art director Hans Dreier The frame is filled with exotic elements meticulously crafted on various sets on the back lot including those in Bakersfield and Chatsworth, complete with functioning railroad tracks. Von Sternberg summoned up his imaginary China rich and vividly painted with the complex colour of the city.

”Shanghai Express seems to exist entirely in zones of light that transfix the protagonists, who instantly read iconographs (luxury, desire, Orientalism) within the universe they inhabit. The visuals of the film ultimately overpower the narrative, and simultaneously become part of it, as if both the characters and their world are inextricably intertwined with Sternberg’s sumptuous, unrelenting lavish design for Shanghai Express.” Winston Wheerler Dixon Black & White Cinema: A Short History

In 1931 a time of great upheaval when China was in the midst of a civil war, a group of passengers traveling through revolutionary-era China were fated to converge by circumstances on a train heading from Peking to Shanghai. A train ride through a cinematic lens, a nightmarish journey filled with extortion, violence, torture,  murder, sexual assault, revelations, and redemption. It is the story of the misfortunes and reversals of the assorted passengers on the Shanghai Express who are seized by Chinese officers on the trail of a rebel agent.

As we’re warned of impending danger, we embark on the Shanghai Express with its passengers, all players in the art of deception, none of them are as they seem to be, though the ones who are above this social game – Shanghai Lily and her ‘constant’ traveling companion and old Berlin confidante -Hui Fei.

The principal voyager the exquisitely beautiful Dietrich is the notorious ‘coaster’, a woman who lives by her wits, a temptress, and a courtesan – Shanghai Lily. She is the archetypal fallen woman who projects her enigma – eclipsed by her veils that barely reveal her coy, cynical glances. Garmes’s camera catches Dietrich’s glowing visage as if she might be an angel reaching upward to catch the light – hatching out of a silken egg. Von Sternberg’s Muse is never more erotic – in the simplest reverberations – merely wandering down the corridor of the train or in a trance looking out the window.

Orbited by the iconic fashions of designer Travis Banton she appears as a Muse in black. The tiny train compartment is overstuffed with Lily’s trunk filled with black gloves (by Hermes), black fashions, silk kimonos, feather boas ostrich & marabou stork, veils, and Banton’s chiffon, her gramophone, and Lily’s fellow ‘coaster’ Anna May Wong as her companion Hui Fei and her dagger – in the end she is the film’s true righteous Angel of Death.

Most of the other characters on the train are interesting enough thanks, in part, to Jules Furthman’s screenplay and discerning dialogue that enjoys many spells of humor. Lily and Hui Fei invert the stifling cosmos of the self-righteous Doc Harvey, reshaping his world, as they whisk him away from the clutches of Chinese warlords and revolutionaries. In the process, they chart the path for Dietrich’s reawakening and the fulfillment of her desire to claim her beloved. Within the narrow confines of the train, identities are scrutinized and unveiled like one of Dietrich’s gauzy curtains. Amid the labyrinthine passageways where Sternberg’s camera wanders, faith emerges as a perilous pursuit but it lights the way to love.

Captain Donald ‘Doc’ Harvey (Clive Brook a favorite Sternberg actor) is a military officer and surgeon who is Lily’s former lover. Harvey is a stiff and stone-faced Englishman whose hardened complexion is tested by the sleek and velutinous Lily’s masterful handling of truth and deception. The former lovers meet by chance on the train.

As Harvey is boarding the train, his friends thrill him with the idea that he’ll be on the same train as the infamous Shanghai Lilly. Having never heard of the woman his friends enlighten him. She is a ‘coaster,’ “A woman who lives by her wits along the China coast,” and more specifically a courtesan, a kept woman. Harvey encounters Lily and recognizes her as Magdalene

When Captain Harvey runs into Lily on the train he recognizes her as Magdalene, the woman he had been in love with five years earlier.

Doc Harvey “You’re more beautiful than ever, “ he says, adding absurdly, “It was nice to see you again, Magdalen.” She answers, “Oh I don’t know, “ she begins to play a jazz record to show him that his flat demeanor and explicit disdain have not affected her mood – she conveys her stoic resignation beneath her veil that is a screen to ‘’those eyes that go up and down like a spider sizing up a fly’’. – (Steven Bach -Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend)

When Lily reveals to Harvey her new incarnation, her seductive handwork is splendid and the moment is moody and melancholy as she flirts with something out of reach of her desires. It is an intoxicating blend of sensuality and longing.

Harvey ‘’Magdelene’’ Lily ”Well, Doctor, I haven’t seen you in a long time. You haven’t changed at all, Doctor.’’ Harvey ” Well, you’ve changed a lot, Madelene.’‘Lily ‘‘Have I, Doc? Do you mind me calling you “Doc,” or must I be more respectful?’’ Harvey ”Ah, you were never respectful, and you always did call me ‘Doc’ I didn’t think I’d ever run into you again.’’ Lily ”Have you thought of me much, Doc?’’ Harvey ”Let’s see. Exactly how long has it been?’’ Lily ”Five years and four weeks.’’ Harvey ‘‘Well, for five years and four weeks, I’ve thought of nothing else.’’ Lily ”You were always polite, Doc. You haven’t changed a bit.” Harvey ”You have, Madeline. You’ve changed a lot.’‘ Lily ”Have I lost my looks?’’ Harvey ”No. You’re more beautiful than ever.’’ Lily ”How have I changed?’’ Harvey ”I don’t know. I wish I could describe it.’‘ Lily ”Well, Doc, I’ve changed my name.’’ Harvey ‘’Married?’’ Lily ”No. It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.’’ Harvey ”So you’re Shanghai Lily.’’ Lily ”The notorious white flower of China. You heard of me, and you always believed what you heard.’’ Harvey ”And I still do. You see? I haven’t changed at all.’

Harvey ”I wish you could tell me there’d been no other men.’’
Lily ‘‘I wish I could, Doc, but five years in China is a long time.’’
Harvey ”I wish I had ’em back.’’
Lily ”What would you have done with them? There’s a scheme of things. Sooner or later, we would’ve parted any way. And we might never have met again.”
Harvey  ”We wouldn’t have parted, Madeline. We’d have gone back to England, married, and been very happy. There are a lot of things I” wouldn’t have done if I had those five years to live over again.”
Lily ”There’s only one thing I wouldn’t have done, Doc.”
Harvey ”What, for instance?’’
Lily ”I wouldn’t have bobbed my hair. Good night, Donald.”

Later on Lily explains to Harvey that she had played a woman’s trick on him to test his love by making him jealous. But her scheme backfired.

Before the train has even begun its journey – the story begins…

There is the zealot missionary Reverend Carmichael (Lawrence Grant), a seasoned gambler Sam Salt (bigger-than-life character actor Eugene Pallette -” I don’t know what you’re sayin’, brother, but don’t say it again!”), an opium dealer Eric Baum (Gustav von Seyffertitz), a Major Lenard (at around 40 mins) there is an obvious jump cut that deletes the details given by Major Lenard (Émile Chautard)  as to the nature of his “disgrace” which instigated his removal from military service.

Also along for the journey is Boardinghouse Owner Mrs. Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale – Mrs. Haggerty ‘’Me’’? Chinese Rebel Officer ‘‘Yes, Follow me upstairs.’’ Mrs. Haggerty ”Everybody told me there wasn’t the slightest danger. I made a point of asking.’‘)

Carmichael and Mrs. Haggerty are not pleased to be sharing accommodations with women like Lily and Hui Fei.

Mrs Haggerty ‘‘I heard your gramophone, ladies, and thought I’d come in and get acquainted, if you don’t mind.’
Lily ”Not at all. Come in.’’ Mrs Haggerty ”It’s a bit lonely on the train, isn’t it? I’m used to having people around. They put my dog in the baggage car. That’s why I dropped in on you. I’ve been visiting my niece in Peking. She married a seafaring man. He hasn’t been home in four years, and she ain’t been very cheerful. I have a boardinghouse in Shanghai. Yorkshire pudding is my specialty, and I only take the most respectable people.’
Lily ‘‘Don’t you find respectable people terribly… dull?’’ Mrs Haggerty ‘‘You’re joking, aren’t you? I only know the most respectable people. You see, I keep a boardinghouse.’’ Lily ” What kind of a house did you say?’’
Mrs Haggerty ‘‘A boardinghouse.’’ Lily ‘’Oh.’’ Mrs Haggerty ”I’m sure you’re very respectable, madam.’’ Hui Fei ‘‘I must confess I don’t quite know the standard of respectability that you demand in your boardinghouse, Mrs. Haggerty.’’ Mrs Haggerty ”I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’d better look after me dog.’’ [She bumps into the Reverend Mr. Carmichael] Mrs Haggerty ”I beg your pardon.’’ Reverend Carmichael ”I beg yours.”
At first, Mrs. Haggerty is in the dark about Lily and Hui Fei’s calling, but when she introduces herself as the keeper of a boarding house. Lily asks her, “What kind of house did you say?” Mrs. Haggerty storms off. There is also a French Officer Major Lenard (Emile Chautard). Lawrence Grant (Reverend Mr. Carmichael), Gustav von Seyffertitz (Eric Baum) and Eugene Pallette (Sam Salt) had all appeared together 3 years earlier in The Canary Murder Case 1939.
Reverend Mr. Carmichael ‘‘Well, sir, I supposed every train carries its cargo of sin, but this train is burdened with more than its share!’’ Captain Harvey ”Sir, you seem distressed.’’ Carmichael ‘‘My name’s Carmichael, Doctor of Divinity in the service of mankind. And whom have I the honor of addressing?’’ Harvey ”Well, sir, my name is Donald Harvey, Doctor of Medicine in the service of His Majesty. It’s charming to make your acquaintance, sir.’’ Carmichael ”Dr. Harvey, I want to put you on your guard.’’ Harvey ‘‘On my guard? Why, what’s wrong?’’ Carmichael ”One of them is yellow and the other one is white, but both their souls are rotten.’’ Harvey ‘‘You interest me. Mr. Carmichael. I’m not exactly irreligious, but… being a physician, I sometimes wonder how a man like you can locate a soul, and, having located it, diagnose its condition as rotten.’’ Carmichael ”That’s heathen talk, Doctor. You’re a materialist, sir. Any man with half an eye should be able to see that those two women are riding this train in search of victims.’’ Harvey ”A very grave charge, Mr. Carmichael. I don’t know anything about the Chinese woman, but as for the other lady…” Carmichael ”Why, confound it, sir. That’s Shanghai Lily. For the last fortnight, I’ve been attending a man who went out of his mind after spending every penny on her. And that’s not all I know. She’s wrecked a dozen men up and down the China coast.’’ Harvey ‘‘Look here, sir, you’re mistaken. She’s a friend of mine.’’ Carmichael ‘‘Well, sir, if I were in your boots, I wouldn’t brag about it.”

And finally, the mysterious British & Chinese Henry Chang played by Charlie Chan regular Warner Oland.

“Warner Oland’s ‘race drag’ performance as Chang prefigures his many later appearances as Charlie Chan; and Eugene Pallette’s abrasive Sam Salt’s unending series of racist comments further underline the film’s interest in examining the questions of race and colonialism that swirl around the film’s seductive images. The use, too, of hundreds of Asian-Americans as extras and bit players in the film’s numerous crowd scenes adds to 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, and only Dietrich, Wong, and to some extent “Doc” Harvey, have any real moral agency.’’
(Wheeler Winston Dixon – from Sense of Cinema 2012)

The Chinese government forces stop the train and begin examining the passports of all the passengers. Thinking they have uncovered their rebel agent, they take him away at gunpoint, but then we see Chang hurrying to the telegraph office to send off a coded message.

General Henry Chang played in ‘Yellowface’ by Oland is in charge of taking over the government, he orders his rebels to stop the train en route to Shanghai. It is overrun by Chang’s rebel forces.

Hui Fei ”I thought his face seemed familiar. The government has offered a price of 20,000 for his capture – alive or dead. It will be a great day for China when that price is paid.”

Imperious incognito Warlord Chang first goes undetected until he reveals himself to be the revolutionary leader in search of a hostage he can trade for the high-ranking official in his army who was taken away by the Chinese government. He finds the ideal prisoner in British Captain Donald ‘Doc’ Harvey. But his plans get away from him when the beautiful courtesan Shanghai Lily will later offer herself up instead, because of her desire to protect the man who once was her lover.

The passengers are hijacked by Chang who is a belligerent thug ashamed of being partly white, yet he has no shame in forcing the German Shanghai Lily to be his mistress. The principal players are taken hostage. Then all their masks come off.

We learn that Baum is an opium dealer when Chang tortures him with a hot branding iron before releasing him back on the train. Later, Chang assaults Hui Fei, and with wicked joy and malevolent delight he indulges himself in cruelty to show off his power.

Chang figures that “Doc” Harvey is the most likely hostage to be the most useful for his cause so he is taken from the train and held captive. Harvey is on his way to perform emergency surgery on the colonialist Governor – the General of Shanghai himself. The brute hopes to exchange the Captain for one of his men who was captured the night before.

While Chang waits for an answer to his offer of an exchange of prisoners, he moves in on Lily and offers to give her a very comfortable life if she agrees to become his mistress. Lily refuses and Chang attempts to force himself on Lily while Harvey listens in the next room. Outraged, Harvey attacks Chang and knocks him to the floor.

Chang “I have a palace waiting to be graced by your presence. Could I persuade you to accept my hospitality until such time that you should grow weary of me?” Lily “I’m weary of you now.”

Humiliated, he threatens to blind Harvey before he is returned to the British authorities. But Chang understands that he needs Harvey alive.

Chang ”All the money in the world can’t wipe out his insult to me.’’ {Shanghai Lily tries to shoot him] Chang ”You only had my interest before. Now you have my admiration. I could love a woman like you.’’ Lily ‘‘You made me an offer to leave with you. Does it still hold good?’’ Chang ”I wouldn’t trust you from here to the door. What assurance have I you won’t trick me?’ Lily ‘‘I give you my word of honor.’’ Chang ”A man is a fool to trust any woman, but I believe a word of honor would mean something to you.”

To take out his unfulfilled aggression he sends for Hui Fei and assaults her. Hui Fei returns to the train after being raped by Chang, and Lily stops her from committing suicide, by grabbing the knife out of her hand. This will be the same knife Hui Fei will later use to kill Chang. Lily cautions her: “Don’t do anything foolish.” Hui Fei ”When are we leaving?’’ Lily ”I wish I knew. I suppose as soon as Captain Harvey comes down.’’ Hui Fei ”If he’s up there, he may never come down.”


The Chinese government capitulates and when the train arrives with Chang’s comrade it does not slip his attention that Harvey has insulted him. He is willing to allow the train to continue to Shanghai but he tells Lily that he will not overlook Harvey’s affront. He’ll let him go but he’ll be blind when he returns. Lily offers to give him all her money if he’ll just spare Harvey, but Chang refuses unless she agrees to go with him.

Lily is warned “I wouldn’t trust you from here to the door,” but giving in to Chang is the only way to save her love. So Lily delivers herself to Chang to save Harvey’s eyes and assure his freedom. However, he is already blinded to the truth — that Lily has always loved him.

In one of the beautifully framed moments of the film, she prays, her white hands like doves, that flutter in the darkness, and Lily’s black feathers, which are a ghostly hint at a spiritual epiphany and transcendent redemption. Dietrich’s affinity with Lee Garmes’s camerawork and lighting silhouettes a unique love affair all by itself. That visual heartbeat is a moment of visual ecstasy. The black space across her face suggests at that moment her outward beauty is insignificant. It is her soul that comes forth into the light.

Harvey is convinced that Lily is doing this of her own free will, Harvey discovers from the Reverend that Lily is acting out of altruism alone, and indeed, has been up all night praying for Harvey’s deliverance from bondage.

‘’It is a startling moment, dangerous and dizzying, revealing Sternberg’s long, never-realized flirtation with Pirandello. It is also a humiliation for Harvey, whose ’scientific’ mind can penetrate a brain, but not a heart. It is a bitter triumph for unrepentant Lily, who has brains and heart.’’ – (from Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend by Steven Bach)

Initially convinced that Lily’s willingness is her own choice, Harvey later comes to find out from the Reverend who had earlier admonished her for being a courtesan, that it was an act of selflessness and that her sustained prayers through the night was an unwavering declaration of faith to break his chains. Lily loved Doc all along, even if she has ‘wrecked a dozen men up and down the China coast.’

As the Shanghai Express prepares to leave the station, fate would have Hui Fei leave the train carrying her dagger. She takes advantage of the confusion and sneaks into Chang’s nest and kills the rebel gangster – furious – she penetrates him with her blade, avenging herself. With Chang dead, Lily is free to board the train before Chang’s body is discovered. Lily ”I don’t know if I ought to be grateful to you or not.” Hui Fei ‘‘It’s of no consequence. I didn’t do it for you. Death canceled his debt to me.”


Lily does not confess to Harvey her willingness to leave with Chang. Reverend Carmichael who had witnessed Lily praying for Harvey’s safety has had a change of heart about the woman he once found so detestable. He insists on knowing the reason why she was ready to join Chang, but she tells him that Captain Harvey must never know. She doesn’t care to “bargain for love with words” and insists that Harvey find his faith in her on his own. Carmichael agrees to this but winds up speaking very harshly to the stubborn fool, “She is worth a dozen of you!” that love as with religion – one must have faith.

All the passengers’ secrets lay bare, when the train arrives in Shanghai, Hui Fei collects a handsome reward from the Colonial authorities for killing Chang, and Lily and “Doc” Harvey have reunited saying farewell to the past. She gives him a new watch to replace the one she had given him when they were lovers. ”I wish I could replace everything else too.” Harvey “Please forgive me for my lack of faith, please do… How in the name of Confusious can I kiss you with all these people around?” Lily ”But Donald, there’s nobody here but you and me. Besides a lot of lovers come to railroad stations to kiss without attracting attention.”

The partners made seven pictures together, all of them sensuous excursions with an aesthetic overflowing with unconventional and queer opulence that challenged the principles of Hollywood of that period. Their alliance shaped a cinema of spectacle, defiance, and self-indulgence that was dizzying and flooded the senses all with a languid rhythm.

Sternberg instructed his cast to speak as if the constant rhythm of the train’s locomotion fell upon their tongues. The outcome: the film has a tight pace and rather staccato quality to the dialogue. (IMDb trivia) Sternberg had envisioned a cinematically surreal journey aboard a moving train. What was considered as “Grand Hotel on a train.”

Though the film was banned from circulation in China for its often derogatory representation, Shanghai Express is considered a masterpiece of visualization with the train as much a character as the actors. Sternberg later said his story was about a train. It was a smashing hit at the box office and perhaps the most successful of the seven Dietrich-Sternberg collaborations and as usual, it had its controversies. Though Shanghai Express was seen as a triumph in the West both Josef von Sternberg and Dietrich Paramount had to pledge not to make another film involving Chinese politics, before the ban was lifted.

Shanghai Express was nominated by the Academy for Best Photography. Best Picture, and Best Director. Lee Garmes (Scarface 1932, Nightmare Alley 1947) rightly won the Academy Award for his work as Director of Cinematography, and soon-to-be-celebrated James Wong Howe is uncredited for his work establishing the film as a triumph of visual artistry.

Nominated for Best Picture but did not win, the Award for Best Picture went to Edmund Goulding for Grand Hotel (1932) and Frank Borzage won Best Director for the sadly underappreciated Bad Girl (1931). It is curious to note that Dietrich wasn’t even nominated for Best Actress.

Marlene Dietrich had been nominated for Best Actress for Morocco in 1930 but would never again be recognized for her work by the Academy, she had been left out of that year’s lineup. Instead, AMPAS recognized two theater sensations: Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet and Lynn Fontanne in The Guardsman, along with the unexpected Pre-Code era star, Marie Dressler in Emma.

Hayes would secure victory for a rendition of the fallen woman archetype far less subversive than Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily. While Dietrich’s portrayal was unapologetically provocative, Hayes’ interpretation was notably moralistic. The two performances were conflicting translations of a theme. Dietrich’s role lacked sentimentality and the other was a melodramatic tear-jerker. the Oscars weighed in with the safer choice.

Dietrich brings off Pre-Code innuendo with ease for example as she fondles the barrel of a gun. Shanghai Express was released during the Pre-Code era and offered the public a momentary escape from the direst depths of the Great Depression. Before the Hays/Breen Office put a stranglehold on creative expression, von Sternberg’s film yielded to the kind of moral ambiguity that the Code was looking to trample all over. It is perhaps the director’s most stirring collaboration with Dietrich, which blended a rich tapestry of eroticism, exoticism, peril, and redemption.

The Hays Office expressed concern about the unlikable character of the minister, which prompted a revision of the script. Other concerns included the remark by Chang that he was not proud of his white blood, but that line remains in the print.

‘’About eighty years later, Shanghai Express was admitted to the Chinese theater as a ‘retrieved’ classic at the Shanghai International Film Festival in 2015. The critical voices surrounding the film in the 1930s Chinese communities indicated that Chinese audiences were concerned with how they and their country were being visually represented by others, and the need for authenticity can be seen in the censoring process and people’s responses to the film.

The anxiety of authenticity shown is more connected with Chinese audiences’ worries that Shanghai Express could be read as an authentic representation of China and the Chinese. The importance placed on cross-over films using Chinese elements is still seen today, at a time when Hollywood’s practices of incorporating and manufacturing ‘Chinese elements’ have led to the ‘Asianization of Hollywood’. – (From The Anxiety of Authenticity: The Historical Reception of Broken Blossoms (1919), Shanghai Express (1932), and The Good Earth (1937) in China by Qijun Han)


‘’Sternberg always used props for symbolic gestures and, sure enough, as Lily is seducing Harvey she removes his military cap and dons it herself. After safe arrival in Shanghai, she buys him a watch at the station (this is a man who needs to know the time) They reconcile in an embrace. If one wonders at the apparent absence of a mustachioed director’s proxy, one is revealed in that embrace. Lily wraps herself around the lover whose faithlessness almost cost him his vision and benvevolently takes his riding crop from him. Hands that pray -also hold the whip. Marlene’s ascension to Dietrich’ the merciful temptress taking charge of Fate and her man, was ravisihing and complete. No one on screen could touch her for erotic power, for irony and humor. She was what Sarris says this picture made her – the screen’s undisputed EMPRESS OF DESIRE. (From Steven Back’s biography of Marlene)

“I never kept a diary. I never too myself seriously enough to record the trivia of everyday life, for which I lacked the necessary self-centeredness. Where others might have succumbed to it, I was always indifferent to the glitter of fame. I found it troublesome, crippling, and dangerous. I detested it. Unlike most actors and actresses, I hate to behave like a ‘star’ and to be a target of the curious on the streets or at an airport. Admiration from unknown persons leaves me cold. The fame that can completely alter the personality of a human being has no power over me. That’s how I am, and I can’t be otherwise.” –Quote from the autobiography ‘Marlene’ by Marlene Dietrich

“Whence comes this smokey voice that speaks of broken hearts, this dark voice of a thousand wishes – and from what sea rises this eternal siren that binds Odysseus forever to the mast of his ship. Because of your glory and your beauty, Madame, you are, since time immemorial, our Queen, under our countless rapt gazes that spread over the glittering scales of your body. And since time immemorial, you are our elect, as your soul rises above the legend and above the night.” — Jean Cocteau

Marlene Dietrich… Your name begins with a caress, and ends with a whiplash. You wear feathers and furs that seem to belong on your body like the fur on animals and the feathers on birds. Your voice, your look, are those of a Lorelei. But Lorelei was dangerous. You, on the other hands, are not, since the secret of your beauty lies in your goodheartedness. This goodness of heart places you above elegance, above fashion, above style, even above your fame, your courage, your walk, your films and your songs. “Your beauty is not to be overlooked, but there’s no need to even mention it So, I bow before your goodness. It illumines your from within that long wave of glory that your are. A transparent wave that comes from far away and generously deigns to roll in towards us. From the sequins in The Blue Angel to the tails in Morocco from the shabby black dress in X.27 to the exotic bird feathers in Shanghai Express, from the diamonds in Desire to the American uniform, from port to port, from reef to feed, from wave to save, from embankment to embankment, bears down on us, sails unfurled a frigate a figurehead on the prow, a flying fish, a bird of paradise, the incredible, wonderful, Marlene Dietrich! -Quote from Cocteau

“She’s courageous, beautiful, loyal, charming and generous. She’s never boring. In the morning in the shirt, trousers and boots of an American soldier, she looks as special as she does in the evening or on the screen. Her honesty as well as her sense of the comedy and tragedy of life are responsible for the fact that she can never truly be happy, except when she loves. She can also joke about love, but it’s gallows humor. Even if she had nothing but her voice, she could break your heart with it.In addition, she has this beautiful body and the timeless beauty of her face. What if it does break your heart if she’s there to put it together again?

“She’s never cruel, but angry, yes, that she can be, and stupid people get on her nerves, and she makes no secret of it, unless the dunderhead happens to be in need. Whoever needs help, to some extent can count on her sympathies. “Marlene sets her own rules, but the standards she sets for the manners and honesty of others are no less strict than the original ten commandments. That is one of the things that probably makes her so mysterious; that so beautiful and talented a woman, who can do what she pleases, does only what she considers absolutely right, that she was so clever and courageous to set up her own rules, which she follows. “I know that I, myself could never see Marlene without her moving me and making me happy. If that’s what makes her mysterious, it’s a beautiful mystery. It’s a mystery of which we have known for a long time.” – Quote From Hemingway


Wheeler Winston Dixon – Sense of Cinema 2012

Steven Bach -Marlene Dietrich: Life and Legend

Donald Spoto’s Blue Angel

Marlene by Marlene Dietrich autobiography

Catherine Constable -Thinking in Images: Film Theory, Feminist Philosophy and Marlene Dietrich

The Dragon Lady and The Quiet Cultural Warrior By Leslie Camhi THE New York TIMES ARTICLE Jan. 11, 2004

Qijun Han from The Anxiety of Authenticity: The Historical Reception of Broken Blossoms (1919), Shanghai Express (1932) and The Good Earth (1937) in China

Peter B. Flint New York TIMES 1992


13 thoughts on “Marlene Dietrich & Anna May Wong: Shanghai Express (1932) The Merciful Temptress or Veils on a Train & The Quiet Cultural Warrior or Mythos of the Dragon Lady With a Dagger

  1. This was such a fantastic read, Joey. I love Anna and Marlene so much and they are both epic in this flick. You’ve made me realise I’m way overdue for a rewatch of this.

    Someone missed an opportunity to create a film series where these two played best mates who travel the world, get into all kinds of adventures, get rid of annoying blokes by delivering withering putdowns and get to rock the most stunning outfits as a bonus. I need someone to invent a time machine so I can go back and get this greenlit!

    The camera has never loved anyone as much as it loved Marlene Dietrich in my opinion.

    Hope all good with you.


    1. Thank you so much for your kind words. I agree with you about a continued series with two strong pals who take on the world together. Especially arse’s and wankers! Too bad H.G. Wells isn’t around to help with that Time Machine! lol

  2. OMG – what a wonderful post. I spent a lot of time just going over the many wonderful observations. While Marlene and Anna are indeed a formidable and delicious pair, I don’t mind a sprinkle of Clive brook here and there. Truly a great post. Come awards time, you must submit this.

    1. Thank you so much! That is such a nice sentiment… I am so glad that you enjoyed the post. It really felt great diving into both Marlene & Anna May’s life and their collaboration on Shanghai Express. Cheers, Joey

  3. I agree with two previous comments: (1) Come awards time you must submit this post, and (2) the camera NEVER loved anyone as much as it did Marlene D.

    Even though Marlene is fab in this film, I’ve always thought Wong’s character was the more interesting. If only there could be a re-do of this movie from Wong’s point of view…

    1. I agree, I believe the first love affair in any of her work was between her and the camera first! I love your idea about viewing the story through Wong’s point of view. That would make for an interesting development in the narrative…

  4. This was awesome. Dietrich was a favourite very early on in my classic movie curiosity, my idea of what the ultimate movie star (especially for the 30’s) should be, mysterious, extra-glam, just beyond, and endlessly fascinating. Wong’s work I’ve explored more of recently, just saw Piccadilly this summer, so good!
    I got to see Shanghai Express with Karen and other friends at TCM film fest. I’d seen it before but when I say nothing prepared me for these two sophisticated talents on a big glowing silver screen, wow! All these moments you beautifully describe, you can imagine the impact. You’re right about their chemistry and if only for a different time and environment they’d have been the perfect couple.

    This was such a lovely read full of insights and eye candy, thank you. Makes me want to (re)watch a bunch of their movies asap.

    1. Well done! This in-depth and evocative post is a wonderful exploration into the work of these two formidable actresses and a exotic film that brings them together.

      1. Jacqueline T. Lynch – Another Old Movie Blog – see above “anonymous” comment.

    2. Thanks so much! Watching Shangahi Express on the big screen at TCM must have been phenomenal – I can imagine how much more you get to experience from Marlene and Anna’s chemistry! I plan on watching Piccadilly and Tiger Bay since I’m in the mindset to tribute Anna May Wong’s dynamic presence…

  5. After reading your post I feel like I got to know both Marlene and Anna May a little better. I appreciate the respectful way you addressed the possible rumors about them.-Daffny xox

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