Furs on Film – Shanghai Express

So, everything is back to “normal,” which is to say all the reviews have been updated to replace the example shots and all the galleries have been returned. 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… oh crap.

Shanghai Express – The Film

Yes, after months of my complaining, TCM ponied up with the 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. Among the notable passengers are “Shanghai Lily” (Dietrich) and Cpt. Harvey (Clive Brook) in addition to 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

Actually mostly this film is about the camera making sweet, sweet love to Marlene Dietrich, as well it should. Actually, if you want to know more about the background to the film, check out this TCM Spotlight blog post on it. Lily’s obviously pretty good at her work, since she can afford a very nice 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 thusly named because it is the fur she invariably takes with her anytime she leaves the train. It is a dark cloth coat with a very full silver fox collar. The sizable feathery hat is a one timer, though.

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.

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

This is couple seconds later, a shot from the opposite angle where the size of the collar is very visible.

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.

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

It appears in yet another iconic shot.

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

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.

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

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.

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

One of the important things to note as you’re watching this sequence is that her coat has only one cuff, the right.

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

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

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 as whole 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%

Full Gallery: Fur Fashions of the 1932 film Shanghai Express

3 Responses to “Furs on Film – Shanghai Express”

  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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