B&W, 1932, 82m.
Directed by Josef von Sternberg
Starring Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook, Warner Oland, Louise Closser, Anna May Wong

B&W, 1931, 81m.
Directed by Josef von Sternburg
Starring Marlene Dietrich, Warner Oland, Victor McLaglen,
Turner Classic Movies (US R1 NTSC), Kinos (Italy R2 PAL)

Shanghai ExpressAfter causing an international sensation in The Blue Angel for director (and perceived Svengali) Josef von Sternberg, actress Marlene Dietrich headed off to Hollywood where the pair made a string of stylized, sensual melodramas unlike anything seen before or since in cinema. The very definition of a pre-Code screen siren, Dietrich used her deadly combination of eye-catching legs and magnetic screen presence to create strong, relentless women who didn't need a man to validate their existence. First up for Paramount was Morocco opposite Gary Cooper, but the wildest was yet to come.Shanghai Express

Case in point: 1932's Shanghai Express, in which passengers aboard the title vehicle must contend with a growing Chinese revolution and the machinations of the sadistic Henry Chang (Oland, the screen's most famous Charlie Chan), who's plotting to capture British doctor Donald Harvey (Brook). Meanwhile the notorious Shanghai Lily (Dietrich), who plies her bodily wares up and down the territory, is on board and alarmed to see former lover Donald in such close quarters. Can she help rescue him when the villains come calling? How many cigarettes can she sexily smoke in her carriage? And what about revenge-driven hooker Hui Fei (Wong), who has a sharp knife handy with Chang's name on it?

Deliriously entertaining from start to finish, this film is the perhaps the most operatic and outrageous of Hollywood's "exotic" fetish for all things Eastern during the 1930s. It has some stiff competition from the likes of The Mask of Fu Manchu, of course, but this one pushes its soap opera plot into alien terrain more like a string of fetishistic odes to its leading lady than a woman-in-peril story. It's all executed with great visual style by von Sternberg, who knew how to execute a believable crowd scene and light his star with equal skill; he later tried to pull off a similar trick with The Shanghai Gesture and instead created one of the greatest camp classics in movie history. There's nothing camp about this film though; it knows exactly what it is and only expects you to laugh when it wants you to.

For some reason Universal has treated this film with great indifference on DVD, allowing some lackluster imports to trickle out here and there with dull transfers barely better than old VHS copies. Meanwhile another Dietrich/von Sternberg pairing, The Scarlet Empress, while this one wasn't even deemed worthy of inclusion in the otherwise excellent Marlene Dietrich: The Glamour Collection. (Two other key titles, Desire and A Foreign Affair, are still AWOL in America, a situation that will hopefully be remedied soon.) In any case, this title has finally been brought back into circulation from Turner Classic Movies as the first title in a handy actress/director double feature salute. The transfer looks very similar to Dishonoredthe new prints circulated in the early 2000s; there's some damage and softness here (not surprising given the fate of most Paramount films from that period), but it's quite nice overall with its all-important gray scales looking rich and velvety. Extras include galleries of lobby cards, production and promotional photos, and other visual ephemera.

The second disc in the set contains the Dietrich/von Sternberg film made one year earlier, Dishonored, which doesn't enjoy quDishonoredite the same heightened reputation. That may be because its script is a bit more hackneyed and traditional (basically another spin through Mata Hari territory), but Dietrich still pulls out all the stops where it counts including a fantastic masked party sequence complete with orgiastic visuals involving feathered costumes, confetti, and champagne bottles. Here she's cast as X27, an Austrian agent and former lady of the night previously known as Marie Kolverer. She's enlisted to get information from Russian lieutenant Kranau (McLaglen, who almost fades off the scren opposite his leading lady), after plying secrets from the formidable General Von Hindau (Oland again).

While it's hard to buy most of the cast apart from Dietrich in the nationalities in which they've been cast (though it would have been even more unlikely had Gary Cooper returned to take the role of Kranau when it was offered), most viewers won't care while getting to watch Madame Marlene tear across the screen in a string of outrageous outfits on her way to a terrific final scene that may be one of her strongest moments in any film. Once again the extras include separate galleries of lobby cards, posters, production shots, and some exceptionally good promotional images of Dietrich and the rest of the cast, but the best extra may be the TCMdb article about both films included as a step-through extra covering the complex relationship between the star and director during these pivotal early films.

Reviewed on May 23, 2012.