Friday, February 27, 2004


Interesting collaboration between director Josef von Sternberg and his muse Marlene Dietrich, though not as exotic or racy as some of their other films. It's a pre-Code romance/thriller set almost entirely on a train going from Peking to Shanghai. Dietrich is Madeleine, now known as Shanghai Lily, a "coaster" who goes about living off of a string of men. When she is asked if her name change was due to marriage, she replies with the infamous line, "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily." Her equally notorious traveling companion is Anna Mae Wong, and when they are in their compartment with the gramophone cranked up, lounging about in dishabille, they evoke casual decadence as well as Joan Crawford did in RAIN. Clive Brook is Dietrich's former lover, a British officer and doctor who left her years ago over jealousy and a lack of faith in her. Warner Oland is a businessman who turns out to be a Chinese warlord in disguise; after an important underling of his is arrested just before the train departs, Oland stops the train midway in its route, looking for a hostage, and decides to hold Brook, who is needed in Shanghai to operate on an important person. Soon, however, Oland is threatening Brook's life and Dietrich agrees to become the warlord's mistress to save her ex-lover. The action of the last 15 minutes, involving murder and a test of Brook's faith, leads to a rather hollow happy ending as Dietrich takes Brook back.

Eugene Pallette, less froggy and clownish than usual (he is perhaps best known as Friar Tuck in the Errol Flynn ROBIN HOOD) is good as a fellow passenger; Gustav von Seyffertitz (featured in dozens of 30's movies as thuggish or ridiculous Germans) is an opium dealer who insults Oland early in the movie and pays a price later. Lawrence Grant is a minister who rails against the two fallen women (also reminiscent of RAIN), but who later shows compassion for Dietrich when Brook won't; he ends up being a go-between in their eventual reconciliation. Oland looks a great deal like Charlie Chan, whom he played in several movies, but sounds nothing like him and is very good in the part--I was almost hoping that he *would* get Dietrich. As in many of Sternberg's films, the visuals are often striking; here, the best looking scene is when bandits (actually Oland's men) come out of the fog and swarm over the train. Brook is stiff as a stick and almost totally unromantic--why the fabulous Dietrich would lose her heart to him is beyond rationality. Dietrich rarely got a leading man worthy of her; not Brook, not Lionel Atwill, and not Herbert Marshall; Gary Cooper, in MOROCCO, came close, and he would have been a much better choice for leading man here, Still, a movie well worth seeing. [VHS]

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