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.

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