Josef von Sternberg, the director, has made this effort interesting through a definite command of the lens. As to plot structure and dialog, Shanghai Express runs much too close to old meller and serial themes to command real attention. The finished product is an example of what can be done with a personality and photogenic face such as Marlene Dietrich possesses to circumvent a trashy story.
The script [from a story by Harry Hervey] relates how the heroine became China’s most famed white prostitute, who meets her former English fiance (Clive Brook) on board train. The man has become a medical officer in the British Army. With a revolution going on, Warner Oland turns out to be the rebel leader, has the train held up and in looking for a hostage, to guarantee the return of his chief lieutenant captured by the Chinese forces, he picks Brook.
To save Brook’s eyes being burned from his head, Shanghai Lily promises to become mistress of the revolutionary, leading to further misunderstandings between the central pair.
For counter-interest there is Eugene Pallette as an American gambler among the passengers, Louise Closser Hale as a prim boarding housekeeper, Gustav von Seyffertitz as a dope smuggling invalid, Lawrence Grant as a fanantical missionary, and Emile Chautard as a disgraced French officer wearing his uniform without authority.
It can’t be said that either Dietrich or Brook gives an especially good performance. The British actor is unusually wooden, while Dietrich’s assignment is so void of movement as to force her to mild but consistent eye rolling.
1931/32: Best Cinematography.
Nominations: Best Picture, Director