Shanghai Express (1932)

29 - Shanghai Express

“Love without faith, like religion without faith, doesn’t amount to very much.”

So here’s the deal: I don’t like romances. In part, I probably just don’t understand the craft and am not able to evaluate it or appreciate it as well because it’s not really my specialty, and I suppose that will come with time. But I also think they are typically pretty weak on plot and are ultimately just kind of boring. I’m certainly not a really emotional viewer. Romantic elements to film just don’t interest me as much, unless they’re done in some cool way. Unfortunately, the 1001 book counts 184 of its films under the Romance section, and the iCheckMovies site puts that number above 200, so I guess I’d better learn to like them. For the future, I’ll really try to come at these movies with an open mind and attempt to evaluate their significance even if I don’t enjoy the film. We start with Shanghai Express, and lo and behold, I didn’t like it.

I suppose this particular film was included because it represents the frequent collaboration of director Josef von Sternberg and actress Marlene Dietrich. The two ended up making seven films together with Shanghai Express being the fourth and one of the most commercially successful. The highest grossing film of the year and nominated for Best Picture, it’s clear that Shanghai Express made a big splash. Sternberg and Dietrich had become big names in the industry by this point, and Sternberg is often praised for his lighting and highlighting the beauty of Dietrich. She always plays these strong romantic leads, and Sternberg attempts to put the focus on her. It’s a tested formula that has led both of them great success. I just thought it was boring.

This is a Pre-Code romance, so I figured it might have some edgy elements and push the envelope, which I suppose it does. The extensive romantic bits and the brief elements of violence might not have made it through the Film Codes a few years down the road, but the film is still pretty tame compared to some other stuff being made at the time. There’s nothing wrong with a tame film, but I don’t think a movie can carry itself on romantic appeal alone, which this one tries to do. The big name actress and the mysterious appeal of her character may have been enough to make this movie a success, but I just couldn’t see anything interesting happening in the film. There was the Chinese rebel thing that kept popping up to stir some conflict, but the film doesn’t even seem to care about any of this. The two main characters never fear for their lives in spite of a dangerous situation put before them. Dietrich and leading male Clive Brook are so caught up in this romance thing, it’s almost like they don’t understand the stakes their characters are in. With all this talking and talking, I started rooting for the bad guys. The only good bits in the film were the wacky one-off characters riding the train that would sometimes make jokes about how silly the main characters were acting. At least there were some characters I could relate to.

I don’t want to use up all my good ravings now; I mean I’ve got 200 of these things to watch, but I’ll go ahead and say what I think could be different about romances and maybe my opinion will change down the road. Movies like Shanghai Express really put all their eggs in the basket of their attractive lead(s). Sometimes it’s both leading actors and sometimes just one. In this case, it’s Dietrich. Romance directors will just glorify this attractive lead like some amazing prize, and the characters end up together at the end to give the audience some fulfillment. Hooray, the prize has been won (usually by the man). It’s clear to see that these types of plots eliminate any chance of a complex character. Even if you aren’t into horror movies, I’d much rather see Victor Frankenstein go through the struggle of his life than some boring man whose name I don’t even recall from this movie. Shanghai Express doesn’t even show why these characters are attracted to each other or hardly anything about who they are. You get some backstory about their romantic history and what they’ve been doing with their lives, but nothing to latch on to. It’s all surface. Screenwriters always just toss in some little personal moment that the characters have shared that they think will pass for backstory. In this movie, it’s that he still carries the watch she gave him a long time ago, signifying he still has feelings for her and blah blah blah how terribly boring.

Shanghai Express was another movie made to sell tickets. I have no doubt that von Sternberg was working towards artistic fulfillment with this film. He wanted to capture the beauty of Marlene Dietrich and tell a gripping love story, but he fails to accomplish that last part. Shanghai Express isn’t gripping. Romances, especially older ones but even the newer additions, tend to put all this suspense on whether or not its characters will end up together. This is sorta fair – sometimes they don’t. But either way, it’s such a tired formula. Why not tell this tired formula in some new way. Mess with cinematography. Tell the story from an outside perspective. Have an unreliable narrator. Do something. Without any unique choices, romances like Shanghai Express come off as terribly dull.

Perhaps the medium hadn’t existed long enough yet for romances to garner this boring formula and I shouldn’t be calling out Shanghai Express for playing right into it. But by 2016, I’d like to see a bit more innovation. Two recent movies I have reviewed so far, Rushmore and Drive, feature romantic elements but don’t wallow in them. Granted those movies aren’t solely “romances,” they still make an interesting decision about how to portray the romantic part of the plot. It’s unique. I’m not opposed to romance in films – it’s a big part of life and certainly something exciting to explore on screen. I’m just opposed to being bored.


Films Left to Watch: 972

About Travis

I'm a software engineer reviewing a bunch of movies.
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1 Response to Shanghai Express (1932)

  1. Agreed, this is a very boring movie. Sternberg was a lot better with Docks of New York.


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