So this morning we went down early to the Festival headquarters in the Roosevelt Hotel and picked up our souvenir program. We had almost an hour to go before the start of the film we were planning on seeing so we sat down for a minute. I decided to check my social media feed and there was a tweet from one of my on line friends saying that the line for Shanghai Express was already around the corner from the theater. We hustled our tail ends over there and got queue cards just in time. The screening was packed.
I’m pretty sure I have a copy of this film on VHS somewhere in the garage, where it has lain dormant for more than 25 years. The screening today was a restoration that was stunning. The images are crisp and the black and white photography looked wonderful. There was an introduction by writer Jeremy xXxX, who wrote the Lawrence of Arabia book that came with my Bluray a couple of years ago. He introduced Josef Von Sternberg’s son who shared some great stories about his father and his early career. The fact that as a boy he often sat on Marlene Dietrich’s lap made him an expert in most of our eyes.
The movie is a drama set in civil war torn China, before the Japanese invasion a few years later. A motley crew of travelers is taking the train from Peking to Shanghai. On board are a British Military Doctor and a woman he once loved but abandoned, who now survives on the generosity of the men in her life. Their reunion is an awkward one since he has learned that she is the notorious”Shanghai Lily”. There is a drama played out involving the revolutionary group and a hostage situation with the train. Warner Oland, who would go on to play Charlie Chan, is a mysterious figure with an unpleasant manner who figures into the story and he provides a great character for us to root against.
The movie is incredibly well assembled by the craftsmen of the day. The photography is gorgeous and the editing is very far advanced for 1932. The shots of the train as the passengers board and it tries to leave Peking are well staged and complex. The sounds may have been enhanced for the restoration, but they were spot on. The layering of the screen images during transitions is something that is hard to believe given the early era of the movie. The story is not a strong point but it holds the characters in place and gives us enough to care about the.Eugene Palette, who would go on to be Friar Tuck in my favorite film, is a gambler traveling on the train. He provides most of the comic relief in the film. Dietrich is spectacular as the fallen woman who still carries a torch for her lost love. The images from this film are iconic. Many of her costumes would be recognized by even casual film fans. There is a great shot with an overhead spotlight on her face that may be the defining image of her for most of the film community. If you have seen “Blazing Saddles”, you will know where so many of Madeline Kahn’s look from that movie came from. The frank references to her string of lovers, her slatterd morality and the obvious sexual references, all mark this as a pre-code film. It is racy stuff and it looks great. While the acting of some of the cast is old fashioned at times, the ideas hold up in the long run. This is one of the first great “directors” films. The choices in this movie are all Von Sternberg, and Dietrich is his greatest choice. I never thought I’d need to own this movie, but now I covet it and will look to add t stunning high definition version to my collection. Now a short nap and on to the next treasure.