Why don't they make them like they used to? It's that essentially nostalgic, look-back-at-the-good-ol'-days question, but it's not one that should be readily scoffed at or dismissed. Even the most peripatetic movie obsessive who attempts to see every film that is even the least bit well-regarded by professional critics--and at least some that aren't--will have to concede the point between trips of assiduous cinema-frequenting, perhaps only in a state of meditative clarity. Or, more likely, he or she will be confronted with the question when they view a film as splendidly enchanting as the Shanghai Express.
Why are there so few films as effortlessly mounted, while being so deliriously magnetic these days? Is it because of the bedeviling nature of today's increasingly compartmentalized cinema, in which films are deigned the title of "little" ("______ is a good little movie," a statement I fully know I am guilty of utilizing probably far too often) while others are "prestige pictures," carefully calibrated months before release in many cases? The entire cinematic gallery in America is seasonal, and the weighty autumnal releases are sometimes so painstakingly polished that they are lacking a certain vitality (a certain percentage every year are so determined to be taken completely seriously as Art with a capital "A" that they forget to breathe) while many an instantly forgettable summertime tentpole blockbuster have what used to be grade-B concepts with grade-A+ budgets (Peter Bogdanovich made this excellent point in an interview about fourteen months ago conducted by Matt Zoller Seitz--check out the second to last question and answer, as it has continually haunted me: http://www.timeout.com/newyork/articles/tv-dvd/141/hitchcockeyed). One of the rarest beasts roaming the American big screen frontier these days is a motion picture that can work as both pleasingly entertaining and enormously artistic, and the gap--today largely facilitated by the studios themselves, which make the prestige "Oscar-bait" films through their "indie studio" arms, while they focus more and more on franchises and "high concepts."
If Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men found his mind wandering as an old man, I fear for my own as a young one. Shanghai Express is a masterpiece, and of the seven films von Sternberg made with the sensational and luminous Marlene Dietrich, it is by a fairly wide margin the most accessible, a rollicking good time--a love story, adventure, social message movie, ensemble drama, part-prototypical noir and a piece of brilliant German expressionist filmmaking given sanction by Paramount Pictures in the early 1930s. Fittingly, it is the "middle" film of the seven-part batch between von Sternberg and Dietrich, the fourth, and though all of the films are either quite good or terrific, Shanghai Express is probably the one that will win you over. For one thing, the sumptuous chiaroscuro black and white cinematography by Lee Garmes and James Wong Howe strikingly enshrouds the apically beautiful Dietrich (whose features seemed to refuse to age) in scene after scene, as well as the lovely Chinese star Anna May Wong. Wong, whose character's name is Hui Fei, is flatly terrific with a limited, laconic part. Both women are prostitutes. Dietrich's is famous--or infamous--as Shanghai Lilly, the "notorious White Flower of China." She's also known by her ex-lover, who meets her on the titular Shanghai Express train, Captain Donald 'Doc' Harvey (a lifeless and boring Clive Brook who today is fortunate to have shared the screen with the engulfing presence of Dietrich... perhaps he was absurdly wise in not trying), as simply Magdelen (Marlene Dietrich's middle name). Walter Oland, who would not too much later go on to become "Asian" again in The General Died at Dawn and also repeatedly play the clever Chinese detective Charlie Chan in many films of that cycle (these are all rather fun, diverting pictures as well, and though Oland is a case of a white actor playing Asian in both Shanghai Express and many Chan films, he does so with respectful dignity, albeit in a fairly comedic way in the latter--the taped eyes and parody-like voice are admittedly unfortunate and distracting). Oland's performance as the snake-like Henry Chang, a devious Eurasian whose real identity is that of a ruthless warlord, is a particular treasure that should be unearthed by each new viewer of the film on their own.
In precode film after precode film, the specter of the loose woman presents itself. Joan Crawford in Lewis Milestone's theoretical drama about rigid religious fanaticism (personified by a fiery, mad-eyed Walter Huston), Rain (also 1932) for instance, is both cursed and given the possible opportunity for rebirth. Many precode films were insistent in "curing" the morally shady, loose woman. Rain took a different approach. Countless pictures of the period focused on troubled marriages that were either shattered by infidelity or found themselves boldly attempting to reach a post-monogamous existence. Archie Mayo's tantalizingly-entitled Illicit, starring none other than Barbara Stanwyck, is one of the more interesting, nuanced and realistic takes on such morally murky material. Shanghai Express takes both a radical and traditional viewpoint, simultaneously recognizing the sadness of Dietrich's lost life and lost opportunities (a brutally frank scene between Magdelen and Harvey aboard the train boils down to the fact that in the five years since they separated from one another, she's been with many a fellow while he has pitifully stewed in remorse and self-hatred) and poking at other characters' self-righteousness aboard the train.
In von Sternberg's films, beauty is danger--but it's not that the women in his pictures are truly wicked, despite the protestations of the men (who are in actuality, more accurately realized in his canon as the routinely menacing, intermittently dull foils: which is partly why Dietrich's characters in von Sternberg's films may roughly resemble femme fatale forerunners but are actually better understood as savagely disregarded victims; The Blue Angel subtly demonstrates the tumultuous compact men and women create with one another that harms both sides, while in his 1931 cinematic adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, remade twenty years later by George Stevens, the plight of the working girl, along with what von Sternberg posits to be exploited garment and hotel workers, receives his sympathy, letting the rich girl be cast in the more unfavorable light, something Stevens reversed with his casting of Shelley Winters and Elizabeth Taylor in their respective roles).
Lawrence Grant leaves an indelibly strong impression as Reverend Carmichael, who initially believes the notorious Shanghai Lilly to be a toxic presence aboard the train, only to finally see the error of his ways. Unlike many precode films, such as the aforementioned Rain, which almost viciously excoriated a certain brand of Christianity (typically of the fire-breathing, proselytizing and Dispensationalist Protestant variety) for being cruel, unforgiving and hypocritical, Shanghai Express takes a more nuanced approach, allowing for Reverend Carmichael to assume the worst about Dietrich's "shady lady" but to be endowed with sufficient reason to think more openly. What makes the character shift at least plausible is that Reverend Carmichael roots his newly-enhanced take on Magdelen in "faith," as he tells the glacially-slow 'Doc' in one equally amusing and important scene.
And that is one of the miracles of Shanghai Express: scenes are allowed to be both amusing and important, charming and consequential. Characters are richly subtle creations made into animated, piercingly moving beings. Nothing is more depressing than hearing from proudly lackadaisical people, often in my age bracket, who strongly dislike the mere idea of seeking out "old movies" frequently because of an almost atavistic lack of curiosity all the while bemoaning what they wrongly assume to be primitive deficiencies therein. One cannot desiderate what one is wholly ignorant of. Some elements can be called quaint and in movies like these at this time unrequited love almost always finds requited harmony, but it's the journey, not the destination. Like many of the greatest artists, von Sternberg's journeys were littered with personal defiance and trenchant focus. Yet the surreptitious meanings of those journeys, still ripe for "decoding," if art of this magnitude is to receive the prosaically studious, timeless practice of one person after another digging into its nooks and crannies, were given the sweet, intoxicating operculum of inimitably swanky, fantastically zestful buoyancy and ecstatic pleasure.