I wrote this review initially back in 2011, and I don’t think much of it will survive this 2022 update. The stuff about how it showed up on Turner Classic Movies, in particular. Tip of the hat to TCM, whose programming fueled many of my early updates, including the original Shanghai Express media. But the days of composite video cables running from the VCR are long past (thankfully).
As an older update, it is structured differently, going by outfit, not in chronological order. Revised percentage stats have been updated at the end, along with rough timecodes.
Shanghai Express – The Film
Shanghai Express is the story of a whimsical train ride through the Chinese countryside between Beijing and Shanghai. The notable passengers are “Shanghai Lily” (Marlene Dietrich) and Cpt. Harvey (Clive Brook) and others, including (spoiler?) 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 Fur
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 feathers, furs, and “other.”
We’ll start with Lily’s “getting off the train” fur. She invariably takes the fur with her whenever she leaves the train. It is a dark cloth coat with a full fox collar. Because the film is in black and white, it is not easy to determine the color of the fox. I originally referred to it as silver fox, but I do not think that is likely; the pattern isn’t correct.
Chronologically this coat appears briefly first, then the “marquee” scene at the end of 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 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.
A couple of seconds later, the scene shifts and gives us a better idea of the size of the collar.
Another favorite of mine is in the film. Anna May Wong is Hui Fei, a friend and fellow courtesan who, as usual, is deprived of fur. Here Lily wears her fox while she talks Miss Wong’s character down from a rash course of action.
Shanghai Express – The Feathers
There are a lot of feathers in this film. Three outfits include feathers, including the one that bookends Lily’s appearance in the movie.
We had a preview of the white feathers before because they briefly shared the screen with the fox coat.
Finally, there is this black, feather-trimmed outfit.
It features in another iconic shot.
Shanghai Express – The Down
Here we are, the back-of-the-train sequence. The original version of this review called it sable, and this version will only say that I don’t know the difference between sable and swan’s ass. It is not sable; it is swan down. Notably, the same material as the famous “huge white fur coat” Dietrich wore on stage, which is the subject of many iconic shots.
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 incredible close-ups 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, which did not 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.
As you watch this sequence, one of the crucial things to note is that her coat has only one cuff. The left is bare, yet it’s hard to notice anything but Dietrich and the down/fur as the sequence plays out.
Sadly, all stupendously great things come to an end. Someone needs to rediscover this “vertical collar” technology!
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.
I updated the runtime figures to include all the feathers and provided a breakdown that excludes them if you are not inclined to include them, as I was not in my original calculations. With all feathers, the film makes it into the 20% club with some generous rounding (it was 19.1%, but why not?) Without feathers, the film provides a solid 11% ratio.
Fur/Feather/Down Runtime: approx 15 minutes
Fur/Down Runtime: approx 9 minutes
Film Runtime: 80 minutes
Fur/Feather/Down On-Screen Ratio: 20%
Fur/Down On-Screen Ratio: 11.4%
Find-A-Fur, Shanghai Express, 1932:
- 04:00 – feather trim
- 10:10 – ”
- 27:10 – 31:30 – swan down trim
- 36:00 – 40:00 – fox collar intermittant
- 47:30 – 54:00 – ” ”
- 1:12:20 – feather trim
- 1:16:50 – end – original feather trim