Part II Deceit, Desire, and Survival: Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) and The Scarlet Empress (1934)
A missionary wins the heart of a poetic warlord,
a woman of mystery wins back her untrusting lover,
and a promiscuous princess wins the Russian army’s loyalty and the throne
Line up these three films with Shanghai Express in the center. One one side, Shanghai Express and The Scarlet Empress share a star, a director, and certain thematic obsessions, and on the other, Shanghai Express shares with The Bitter Tea of General Yen a location and crisis (China in civil war, an imperious warlord pursuing the western woman protagonist), and issues of desire, trust, and betrayal.
The stories and subject matter of all three films could have been handled in the flattest, most hackneyed fashion, as it would be in countless Hollywood movies of this and other eras. But as already discussed, one was directed by Frank Capra, and the other two were directed by Josef von Sternberg, who, like other true originals such as Erich von Stroheim, Otto Preminger, and Robert Altman, was not capable of making an ordinary film. Capra’s name is synonymous with Americana, family-friendly comedy/dramas that pit regular folks (personified by incredibly attractive leading men like James Stewart and Gary Cooper) against the forces of exploitation who would co-opt their uniquely American character. Capra’s best-known films were made during the Code’s first years of zealous enforcement, and in keeping with his goal of mainstream success, they gave the PCA nothing to worry about. The Bitter Tea… was a horse of a different color: This excursion into murkier territory, where there is no clear-cut villain and where both protagonists are written as fully human, full of contradictions, blind spots, failings, and admirable qualities, where eroticism and conflicted desire waft in the air along with intrigue and betrayal, stands with the most adult films ever made in Hollywood, along with all of Sternberg’s from the pre-Code era. While The Bitter Tea… was an instant flop (the first movie screened at Radio City Music Hall, it did so poorly in its first week that the theater canceled the rest of its two-week run) that in no way presaged the great future Capra had awaiting him starting with It Happened One Night, Shanghai Express was a hit was one of Sternberg’s last hits. His faltering fortunes slipped decisively with The Scarlet Empress, and though that was unfortunate for him and for us in that he didn’t get to make many more films in Hollywood (and none with any degree of creative control), this singular movie’s failure in some ways explains why it stills exists in all its perverse glory—or even at all.
Shanghai Express (1932)
Shanghai Express is lousy with Pre-Code goodness. Prostitutes, a horny, easily offended warlord, infidelity and betrayal, skirmishes between the Chinese army and rebel forces, torture, rape, murder—all on the three-day journey from Peiping, and all in a brisk 80 or so minutes. The great Lee Garmes won an Oscar for his cinematography, Jules Furthman’s dialogue has a dry edge that keeps it from collapsing into melodramatic goo even when Dietrich and Clive Brook are circling each other like wrestlers in a return bout. Travis Banton’s gowns for Miss Dietrich will knock your eyes out, and Sternberg’s very personal emotional landscape, which has the peculiar fascination of a slightly disturbing dream, is thick in the sooty, humid air.
It is in Shanghai Express that Marlene Dietrich utters her justly best-remembered line: “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.” Some called it “Grand Hotel on wheels” for its ensemble cast, but while the hotel was spacious and afforded privacy, the confined spaces of the train throw people together whether they like it or not.
And of course everyone on the train has a secret: Mrs. Haggerty, the little old lady from Shanghai, runs a boardinghouse that only caters to “the most respectable people,” and her little secret is that has she smuggled her dog onto the train. She presents herself in Dietrich and Wong’s compartment just to chew the fat, having failed to pick up on the obvious social markers designating them as pretty much the least respectable women available, but they straighten her out real quick.
The French lieutenant has been dishonorably discharged and is wearing his uniform to avoid upsetting the sister he’s on his way to visit in Shanghai. Reforming coaster Anna May Wong is apparently on her way to get married (though I can’t find the scene that spells that out in the version I have). The cranky German invalid is actually an opium dealer, and Eugene Pallette’s gambler is sporting fake jewels. Mr. Chang (Warner Oland, warming up for his best-remembered role as Charlie Chan) is a vicious warlord traveling incognito. And Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brook), a British Army physician, is still in love with Magdalen (aka Shanghai Lily), still licking his wounds five years after he dumped her for cheating on him.
As for Magdalen, she carries her scandal without flinching or apologizing. She has regrets but no shame. She’s a realist, a pragmatist; she knows how she ended up here and what she’s done to survive. And she wears no less than three utterly devastating Travis Banton ensembles on the first night of the journey. She’s still in love with the captain in her matter-of-fact, low-affect way. She knows he’s unreliable and that she can’t trust him, but it doesn’t matter—she’ll go to her grave loving him even if she can’t get him back.
So here’s a brief synopsis, because it really doesn’t matter very much: The reliably motley bunch of passengers board the Shanghai Express in Peiping. There is talk about the risk of running into revolutionaries on the journey. There is also talk about the fact that traveling on this very train is none other than the infamous Shanghai Lily (one of whose “victims” the righteously indignant missionary Dr. Carmichael has been ministering to for a fortnight, stark raving out of his head after spending his last cent on her). She and Captain Harvey circle each other slowly, he torturing himself and doubting her, she patiently waiting to reel him back in. She knows it’s no good if he doesn’t fully surrender, if he doesn’t completely trust her no matter what she does. And she is not in a hurry.
The Chinese army stops the train and arrests a revolutionary, Chang’s right-hand man. Chang doesn’t like being messed with and rapes Anna May Wong, apparently just to regain his sense of composure. This turns out not to have been a good move as she is not the type to suffer in silence. Anyway, Chang puts on his uniform and starts throwing his weight around. He takes Captain Harvey prisoner and arranges to exchange him for Chang’s assistant. But he gets a little high-handed and demands that Shanghai Lily come away to his palace until he tires of her, or he will return Harvey as promised, except that he will blind him first (he didn’t promise to return him in perfect condition). Dietrich is willing to sacrifice herself for the captain’s sake. He, of course, thinks she’s just doing it for fun. Which is a stretch, considering Chang’s looks and personality. Anna May does what has to be done and revenges herself by stabbing Chang several times (in the back, appropriately enough). The train arrives in Shanghai, everybody is relieved, and Magdalen and Captain Harvey make out at the train station like a couple of kids.
Josef von Sternberg wasn’t a team player. He wasn’t temperamentally suited to the factory / corporate world of the Hollywood studios. He was a bastard on the set, screaming so much he lost his voice, finally getting a PA so that his shouts could be heard in every corner. He had come to Hollywood as a whiz kid, bringing the unknown and only partially formed Dietrich with him, and it was under his tutelage that her singular personality and extraordinary look was created. There is a lot of talk about the personal relationship between them, and it’s said that her anything-goes sexuality made him suffer.
The party line on Sternberg’s movies with Dietrich is that they are all about his relationship with her, and all about exploitative women who draw men to their destruction. I think that’s reductive and sexist. Robin Wood has a better idea: Sternberg’s movies with Dietrich are about women in striving to survive the stark limitations of a patriarchal culture. It’s not so much that Sternberg’s Dietrich destroys men because she’s just drawn that way as that she has no avenues in which to express her energy, her ambition, her intelligence, beyond her relationships with men. Wood sees this as expressed progressively through the Sternberg / Dietrich collabration, reaching a climax in The Scarlet Empress, where Dietrich must outmaneuver her insane husband the emperor and win the loyalty of the Russian Army by sleeping with, seemingly, as many officers as is humanly possible. She ascends the throne but her face in the final shot is an ambiguous smile / grimace: She has paid for her survival with her sanity.
But Sternberg’s own intense layers of feeling about Dietrich? They find expression in his onscreen portraits of her, her face floating in the darkness in a single shaft of light. She is a dream image, something to haunt one’s waking hours, equally carnal and ethereal.
The Scarlet Empress (1934)
So how did “the most adult, perverse, sex-obsessed film of the entire pre-Code period” get released on September 14, 1934, two and a half months after strict enforcement of the Code had begun on July 1? And how did this film, which might thus be considered the crown jewel (or the cherry on top) of the brief, tumultuous era we call, for lack of a better term, pre-Code, survive as its director made it, so that today we can see it unmediated, without a single nip or tuck—which is not true of many of the most interesting films of the era.
This happy accident seems to be the result of a mad mix of cujones, luck, and timing. Per Mark A. Vieira in his indispensable Sin in Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood, available here: “This fanciful biography of Russia’s oversexed sovereign had been ready for release in April, 1934. At that moment British producer Alexander Korda was releasing his own Catherine the Great, starring Elizabeth Bergner. Sternberg retitled his film The Scarlet Empress, and Paramount held up its release until the Korda film had played itself out in a few art houses. But Sternberg could not resist the opportunity of opening his film in London. To do this, he had to rush the film through the SRC [Studio Relations Committee]. When Breen saw what was the most adult, perverse, sex-obsessed film of the entire pre-Code period, he brought Will Hays in, ran the film again, and called an emergency meeting with Sternberg and Paramount executives. But the Catholic crusade required his attention more than this one movie, and Sternberg was insistent about the opening. When Breen left to consult with [Martin] Quigley, an intimidated minion passed The Scarlet Empress. It premiered at the Carlton Theatre in London on May 9.
“In July, when Breen was putting PCA seals on Paramount films, he did not bother to look at The Scarlet Empress because it had already been passed. He gave it a seal and sent it out. The Legion of Decency got as far as the first reel, in which an eight-year-old girl’s dream shows three beheadings, a naked woman falling out of an ‘iron maiden,’ three topless women being burned at the stake, and a ‘human clapper’ swinging inside a huge bell. The Scarlet Empress made the condemned list, but it created no problems for Breen. No one went to see it. Everyone, including Mae West, dismissed it as an ‘arty disaster.’ What was possibly the best-scripted, best-photographed, and best-directed film of the period was written off as a waste of film.”
In his Criterion edition essay Robin Wood writes: “The Scarlet Empress charts the progress of an innocent young girl doomed from the start to ‘greatness,’ her transformation into the all-powerful Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, and the corresponding destruction of her humanity. …The connecting theme of all the von Sternberg / Dietrich films might be expressed as a question: How does a woman, and at what cost, assert herself within an overwhelmingly male-dominated world? Each film offers a somewhat different answer (but none very encouraging), steadily evolving into the extreme pessimism and bitterness of The Scarlet Empress.… This resulted in the (today extraordinary) misreading of the films (starting from The Blue Angel) as ‘films about a woman who destroys men.’
“Having lost the never-more-than-tentative possibility of a recognizable human relationship, Catherine, finding herself at the mercy of a crazy husband who loathes her, sets about transforming her sexuality into a political weapon, seducing (literally) the army, primarily in the person of the head of the Night Patrol, Lieutenant Dimitri, his services rewarded publicly by the receipt of a personal decoration from Catherine for ‘Bravery in Action.’ … The army at her feet (when it is not in her bed), she arranges the deadly fate of her husband and rides to victory on a white horse…. Her triumphant smile a grotesque grimace, her face hardened into a mask, the oppressed has become the oppressor, apparently at the cost of her sanity. We may think back to the innocent child of the film’s opening, clutching her doll as if for protection as the male servant reads to her of the horrific tortures during the reign of Peter the Great, and to her subsequent summoning to a ‘glorious destiny,’ now outrageously fulfilled.”
Josef von Sternberg, like Erich von Stroheim, was not temperamentally suited to working in the studio system. He made a few very successful films in the silent era and then in 1930 directed The Blue Angel, his first film starring Marlene Dietrich. It was shot simultaneously in German- and English-language versions, and it was an international hit. The story concerns a respectable professor (played by Emil Jannings) who falls in love with a cabaret singer, Lola-Lola. He gradually loses his position, his dignity, himself. Surprisingly, this film also survived without censorship, at least by the PCA. It seems that this was one area in which Sternberg had good luck.
Sternberg and Dietrich soon ditched Berlin for Hollywood. They would make seven films together between 1930 and 1935. He was considered her Svengali; he saw in her the flicker of a presence and personality like no other, which he drew out in extraordinary studies of her face on celluloid, and with movies in which she is both god and goddess—cruel, voluptuous, merciful, mysterious, not governed by the same rules as mere mortals. But to be fair, she didn’t come empty-handed. As David Thomson writes, “his films without her lack that marvelous, scathing langour.” In any case, their fortunes diverged. She became an icon, while he lost favor with his studio bosses, critics, and audiences. He worked occasionally in Hollywood and Europe, and Dietrich continued to make films in the Code years, though her later films never managed to showcase her extraordinary beauty and particular personality with the acuity and intensity of Pre-Code collaborations with Sternberg. She also continued to perform internationally in a successful cabaret and concert act until her retirement, when she closed the door on her apartment in Paris and never allowed a camera to see her again.
It’s always interesting to see an artist who was largely written off during his life find appreciation in a new era. So it has been with Sternberg.
From The New York Times review dated September 15, 1934:
“Scorning to employ the humdrum laws of dramatic development, Josef von Sternberg has created a bizarre and fantastic historical carnival in “The Scarlet Empress,” which began an engagement at the Capitol yesterday. By ordinary standards Mr. von Sternberg outrages even the cinema cognoscenti who have continued, in the face of his excesses, to preserve their faith in him as one of Hollywood’s most interesting and original directors. A ponderous, strangely beautiful, lengthy and frequently wearying production, his new work is strictly not a dramatic photoplay at all, but a succession of overelaborated scenes, dramatized emotional moods and gaudily plotted visual excitements.
“Its players, with the twin exceptions of Sam Jaffe as the crazy Peter and Louise Dresser as the Empress Elizabeth, seem to lose their hold on humanity under Mr. von Sternberg’s narcotic influence, and become like people struggling helplessly in a dream. Mr. von Sternberg has even accomplished the improbable feat of smothering the enchanting Marlene Dietrich under his technique, although his fine camera work never does her less than justice.
“Since the verdict has to be in the negative, let it be pronounced quickly. For Mr. von Sternberg, having sacrificed story, characterization and life itself to his own hungry and unreasonable dreams of cinema greatness, has at the same time created a barbaric pageant of eighteenth century Russia, which is frequently exciting. His scenes are like the vast, tortured world of another William Blake. In the great halls and chambers of the the imperial palace, weird figures of enormous height stand sculptured in attitudes of suffering. Gargoyles with nightmare faces and twisted bodies support mirrors and candelabra. There are panels of saints and martyrs in what is evidently the Byzantine style, and ikons, gigantic iron doors and clusters of candles. Five emaciated martyrs of tremendous size guard Elizabeth’s bed. The imperial treaure chests bear the sculptured bodies of saints in high relief on their covers. The imperial throne is shaped in the form of the avenging double-eagle of the Russias. ….
“These are examples of how Mr. von Sternberg has reconstructed the coarse and primitive Russian court of Elizabeth. Against these settings he arranges violence, cruelty and lewdness in a procession of mobile tableaux…. Men die on the wheel and the rack, women are crucified in picturesque attitudes for the von Sternberg cameras, and the imbecile Peter arranges individual and mass slaughters to amuse himself. Meanwhile the innocent Catherine, transported to Russia to be the bride of Peter and provide the throne with a potential ruler, is shocked by the barbarism of the court. Gradually she adapts herself to its immoral standards, taking lovers first cautiously and then with open abandon. Finally, when the murderous Peter succeeds his aunt and threatens to assassinate Catherine in order to make a place on the throne for his mistress, the handsome girl wins the army and seizes the throne for herself.
“Running a solid hundred minutes, the film first shocks and stimulates the imagination, and then, lacking the dramatic skill to refresh its audiences, becomes steadily duller. A superb musical score has been synchronized beautifully with the picture.”
Gee, sounds pretty interesting to me!
And more recent critics agree. Andrew Sarris writes that “Sternberg was … considered slow, decadent, and self-indulgent, while gloriously ambiguous Marlene Dietrich was judged too rich for the people’s blood—it was a time for bread, not cake. Paradoxically, Sternberg and Dietrich look deeper and more dazzling than ever, while most of the cinema of the bread lines looks excessively mannered…. Even today, however, the art of Josef von Sternberg is too often subordinated to the mystique of Marlene Dietrich…. At all times, Sternberg’s cinema of illusion and delusion has transcended the personality of even his most glittering star the better to reflect is own vision.”
This is part two of Strangers in a Strange Land. Part I, on The Bitter Tea of General Yen, is here.