GOOD LUCK finding something as rich as this double dose of delirious Orientalism at the Stanford Theatre. Underneath the back-lot elegance are two angles on anti-heroism. Shanghai Express (1932), not yet on DVD in America, shows how Lee Garmes’ cinematography makes Marlene Dietrich an enigma. She’s masked and latticed with nets of shadows. Compared to the Black Swan of the ballet by critic John Kobal, Dietrich here is a humid wraith. Director Josef von Sternberg’s peerless smoke-sculpturing gives her auras as gleaming as the fur and feathers surrounding her face.
The action takes place on an overnight railroad trip to the coast from Peking. China is aflame with civil war, and a mixed bag of humanity rides in the first-class carriages. Among them is Eugene Pallette as a coarse American named Salt. Also on board is Anna Mae Wong, striking one here as an angrier version of Ann Dvorak in old Warner Bros. melodramas.
“Every train carries its cargo of sin, but this train is burdened with more than its share,” intones a missionary (Lawrence Grant). The burden in question is the courtesan Shanghai Lily (Dietrich). She lost the only man she cared for because “I didn’t care to bargain for love with words.” The man who broke her heart is aboard, of course. So the night ride is the seeming exit interview between “Lily” and the British military surgeon (Clive Brook) she lost along the way.
Lily’s real name is Madeline, a name with kinship to “Mary Magdalene”; the film’s subject is a lady repenting. The name Magdalen is also the source of the word “maudlin.” But maudlinism is not Shanghai Express’ domain. In this drama a woman’s pride and honor has the same weight as an officer and a gentleman’s. There’s nothing maudlin in the key moment of prayer, shot with distance and discretion. And Dietrich herself was always one to put ice on a wound, even one of the heart.
After this chill, something heated. Perhaps a date with the lady of the hour, who had two biographies last year? In the 1934 Cleopatra, Claudette Colbert is a sight to behold in lounge pajamas, posed amid gilded plaster. Invigoratingly kitschy, Cecil B. DeMille’s spectacle is sporadically historically accurate.