Though this film was a little low quality on YouTube, I still felt transported back to the time of China’s civil war right away. As the camera maneuvers around the platform in Peking, hundreds of people are walking around, but with all the congestion we still get a good introduction to our characters boarding the train. There is Mrs Haggerty (Louise Closser Hale), a British woman trying to hide her little dog so he doesn’t have to ride in the luggage compartment on the train. There’s Mr. Chang (Warner Oland), half white, half Chinese and all suspicious. Captain ‘Doc’ Harvey (Clive Brook) seems to make us feel a little safer during such an uneasy time. But most of the train is in an uproar due to the presence of Shanghai Lilly (Marlene Dietrich), a notorious woman “who lives by her wits along the China coast.”
Because of the war going on, the train is stopped regularly and passports are checked, making the “express” trip take days. The passengers seem genuinely annoyed by all the stops, but that’s nothing on how they detest the likes of Shanghai Lilly. Mrs. Haggerty refuses to share a train car with her, but Mr. Chang will keep her in his sights. Captain Harvey knew Lilly before her darker days, could he still love her? And will they ever make it to Shanghai with all these passport checks? It’s only a matter of time before they turn into something more serious, say, a hostage situation!
What really blew me away (even on little ol’ YouTube) was how beautifully the train was photographed. If you have ever had the slightest interest or appreciation for old trains, this film is a must see. So many scenes are stuck within cramped train cars, which are also shown wonderfully with good use of layers to give us the cramped perspective. But when the camera moves outside and focuses on the train, ah, it’s like we got off to stretch our legs and the shots are like fresh air.
There are constant reminders that we’re still in China. At times thoughout the film, a clock is shown, but instead of numbers there are Chinese characters. One of my favorite little scenes was when the train was moving through a cramped market. The engineer slows down and lays on the whistle while dozens of people and animals scatter across the tracks up until the last moment. It looks like a few chickens might have been run over in this scene. As the train passes, the awnings from the little shops nearly touch the moving train. Banners with Chinese characters flap as the train passes. It’s really beautiful seeing this giant old train pass by the canvas market stands leaving no room for anything in between.
Honestly, the story is only alright and the climatic action falls a little flat, but I didn’t really care. I was most concerned with the beautiful train, Mrs. Haggerty’s little dog and making sure everyone made it to Shanghai.
I’ve always had an odd dream to make a giant model train track that would pass through mountains, over bridges and have a little running water. Now, I’d like to add a little Shanghai platform, with little Chinese people rushing around and a very tight marketplace for my Shanghai Express to pass through. Train enthusiasts would love this film.
“Get this train going, double time!”