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Furs on Film – Shanghai Express (1932)

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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.

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 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, this is a shot from the opposite angle where the size of the collar is evident.

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 fantastic 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 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.

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

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

Sadly, all stupendously great things come to an end. Someone 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 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%

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