Tag Archives: China

Shanghai Express

Directed by Josef von Sternberg
Produced by Adolph Zukor
Written by Jules Furthman
Harry Hervey (story)
Starring Marlene Dietrich
Clive Brook
Anna May Wong
Music by W. Franke Harling
Rudolph G. Kopp
Cinematography Lee Garmes
James Wong Howe
Editing by Frank Sullivan
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date February 2, 1932
Running time 80 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Shanghai Express is a very interesting film from 1932. Set in civil war torn China but filmed in Paris, it stars Marlene Dietrich as Shanghai Lilly. The film was directed by Josef von Sternberg and according to one review that I have read of the film, is meant to be a statement about the love between the fame director and his starlet. Of course rumours have abounded about another affair that the German actress was having with her co-star Anna Mae Wong. Who knows what really was happening behind the scenes.

Dietrich plays the coaster Shanghai Lilly, who has been breaking the hearts of men between Peking and Shanghai for five years, since her heart was broken by ‘Doc’ Harvey, a British officer who she meets up with while travelling on the train. Lots of critics have raved about her performance but she really doesn’t have that much to do. She spends some time looking glamorous and smoking a cigarette and smirking her way through her scenes looking as though she is about to burst into laughter but she is out acted by her co-star Anna Mae Wong, who despite being on screen for a much shorter amount of time has a far juicier part and more screen presence than Marlene.

Then there is Warner Oland as the evil rebel leader Mr Chang, who holds the train passengers for ransom and rapes (off-screen) Wong’s character Hui Fei. Oland is best known as being a caucasian actor who played many Asian parts, especially the famed Oriental detective Charlie Chan. He is thoroughly despicable here.

Shanghai Express was nominated for best picture at the 1932 Academy Awards and while it is very watchable and a very good film, and  Wong and Oland’s performances are great, I don’t know if the film is that great. As I said Dietrich spends most of her time mugging for the camera rather than really acting, while Brook’s performance as ‘Doc’ Harvey is rather wooden.


The Good Earth

Directed by Sidney Franklin, Victor Fleming & Gustav Machatý
Produced by Irving Thalberg
Written by Pearl S. Buck (novel)
Donald Davis (play)
Owen Davis (play)
Talbot Jennings
Tess Slesinger
Claudine West
Starring Paul Muni
Luise Rainer
Walter Connolly
Tilly Losch
Charley Grapewin
Music by Herbert Stothart
Edward Ward
Cinematography Karl Freund
Editing by Basil Wrangell
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date January 29, 1937
Running time 138 min.
English

I like old movies but even I can see that one area where old-Hollywood got things dreadfully wrong was with race. Even in the 21st century this has been one area where the movies have struggled although things are better than they were when The Good Earth was made in 1937. Firstly you’d expect a film about Chinese farmers in China to feature Chinese actors playing the roles, but you’d be really wrong. Here Paul Muni of Scarface fame plays Wang Lung, whilst Luise Rainer won the best actress Oscar (her second) for her portrayal of O-Lan despite the fact that she did so with a heavy German accent.

Apparently producer Irving Thalberg wanted to cast and all Chinese cast but Louis B. Mayer thought that the film going public would not be ready for this. Anna Mae Wong was asked to play Lotus, the seductress, to give the film some authenticity, but she angrily declined the role because she was angry that all the main roles were played in yellow-face by Caucasians and that she would be asked to play the least sympathetic role.

Over-all the acting is hammy, the dialogue ridiculous and stereotypes abound. The film may have been tolerable if there had been Asians at least playing the Asian characters as the yellow-face just makes the film worse than it probably is.

By the way just a note to all Foxtel subscribers that everyone gets the movie channels free for the next two weeks. I saw The Good Earth on TCM.