Furs on Film – Shanghai Express (1932)

So, everything is back to “normal,” which means all the reviews have been updated to replace the example shots, and all the galleries have been returned. I wanted to get that out of the way before I went ahead with a new post. I haven’t done this since October, so I should probably start with an easy one without much personal significance, so I picked… Shanghai Express… oh crap.

Shanghai Express – The Film

Yes, after months of my complaining, TCM ponied up with Shanghai Express. This waste of Internet bandwidth pretty much is here again because they did. The story of the 1932 film is of a whimsical train ride through the Chinese countryside between Beijing and Shanghai. The notable passengers are “Shanghai Lily” (Dietrich) and Cpt. Harvey (Clive Brook) and others, including an incognito rebel leader (Warner Oland) who eventually takes over the train to find a valuable hostage. Harvey and Lily are “old friends” whose career paths diverged a bit after they broke up five years ago. Harvey is a successful (and highly-ransomable) military surgeon on his way to perform a procedure on the Governor-General of Shanghai, and Lily is a prosti- er “courtesan.”

Shanghai Express – The Furs

This film is mainly about the camera making sweet love to Marlene Dietrich. Lily’s pretty good at her work since she can afford a lovely wardrobe, which includes a couple of furs and a couple of “other.”

We’ll start with Lily’s “getting off the train” fur. It is the fur she invariably takes with her anytime she leaves the train. It is a dark cloth coat with a full collar. The sizable feathery hat is a one-timer, though.

Marlene Dietrich in Silver Fox - Shanghai Express - 1932

Chronologically this coat appears briefly first, then the “marquee” fur scene on the train appears, then it returns. I’m going to explore this fully instead of bouncing around. The cinematographer, Lee Garmes, should be congratulated for his work on both.

Marlene Dietrich in Silver Fox - Shanghai Express - 1932

Some of Dietrich’s “iconic” shots come from this film, including this one, where, though it’s sadly hard to tell, she’s wearing the fox collar.

Marlene Dietrich in Silver Fox - Shanghai Express - 1932

A couple of seconds later, this is a shot from the opposite angle where the size of the collar is evident.

Marlene Dietrich in Silver Fox - Shanghai Express - 1932

Another favorite of mine is in the film. Anna May Wong is Hui Fei, a friend and fellow courtesan who, as usual, is totally deprived of fur. Here Lily wears her silver fox while she talks Miss Wong’s character down from a rash course of action.

Marlene Dietrich in Silver Fox - Shanghai Express - 1932

Building suspense… This isn’t fur, I know, and I don’t care; she looks fantastic in it.

Marlene Dietrich - Shanghai Express - 1932

It appears in yet another iconic shot.

Marlene Dietrich - Shanghai Express - 1932

Here we are, the train sequence. On paper, if you told me a scene featured a brown collar and cuff (and it may not be sable at all, as I learned later), I’d probably not be too interested in watching it. Yet I will say this is perhaps one of the most incredible fur fashion scenes of all time.

Marlene Dietrich - Shanghai Express - 1932

This is the scene where we learn the history of Lily and Captain Harvey, and where Dietrich’s, I believe the clinical term is “smoldering sexuality,” is not just on display; it’s burning through the screen.

Marlene Dietrich - Shanghai Express - 1932

There’s a catalog of closeups throughout, and I added way more than I probably should have to the full gallery.

Marlene Dietrich - Shanghai Express - 1932

We learn that Lily tested Harvey all those years ago, and it didn’t go well. They start the process of kissing and making up.

Marlene Dietrich - Shanghai Express - 1932

All a deft move to borrow his hat and produce what I consider one of the most iconic images of Marlene Dietrich.

Marlene Dietrich - Shanghai Express - 1932

One of the crucial things to note as you watch this sequence is that her coat has only one cuff.

Marlene Dietrich - Shanghai Express - 1932

The left is bare, yet it’s hard to notice anything but Dietrich and the fur as the sequence plays out.

Marlene Dietrich - Shanghai Express - 1932

Sadly, all stupendously great things come to an end. Someone needs to rediscover this “vertical collar” technology stat!

Marlene Dietrich - Shanghai Express - 1932

And that’s it. What would I improve? Well, sure, I could say that the train sequence would have been a little better had Dietrich been wearing Irene Dunne’s coat from The Awful Truth, but that almost seems a bit disingenuous. After all, part of the magic of the sequence is the fact that Dietrich and the cinematographer did so much with what, on paper, wasn’t all that great. The film comes up well, with a solid 14% ratio that doesn’t even include that fancy feather number she wears at the beginning and end of the film.

Fur Runtime: approx 11 minutes
Film Runtime: 80 minutes
On-Screen Fur Ratio: 14%

4 thoughts on “Furs on Film – Shanghai Express (1932)

  1. I take it that you were not impressed with the film?
    I suppose that it was a rather boring premise for a story but as far as i could see it was a vehicle for Marlene and around that time she had to be one of the top Hollywood stars. I love the likes of Norma, Irene, Claudette et al but when it comes down to sex appeal then Marlene Dietrich does it for me. I think that she was such a stunning woman in every way and she was not a bad actress. I can watch her films from that era just to see her on screen and I can imagine that a lot of filmgoers at that time felt the same. I did not like all of her films but when she wore fur it really was the ‘icing on the cake’ and the candles as well.

  2. There was a story? Found it hard to notice anything else, heh.

    The TCM blog post linked is quite the read about the director’s antics, many of which became fodder for every “meglomaniacal director” parody ever filmed since. He was, as the cool kids say these days “hitting that,” but a bit frustrated by the fact that she wasn’t quite as into him as he was of her. Sort of bled through into the production.

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