Marlene Dietrich, Queen of Light(ing)

Nobody messes with Marlene Dietrich – or her key light. Image: Berlinale

“We’re in China now, sir, where time and life have no value.”

These few words define the parameters of Shanghai Express (1932), a film about a Dangerous Time And Place where characters have little control over anything, namely rail travel from Peking to Shanghai.

The word express in the film title is a bit of sneering irony; this is not a fast, efficient train. In an early scene, the train is delayed by livestock on the track. En route to Shanghai, the train is stopped by government agents, then is later held up by violent rebels.

Naturally, there are a variety of passengers on this train, including Shanghai Lily, (Marlene Dietrich), a woman famous for her, uh, romances. She shares a train compartment with Anna May Wong, a no-nonsense woman of ethereal beauty and sadness.

Other passengers include Clive Brook as a portentous, self-satisfied British officer (with whom, inexplicably, Dietrich is in love), and Warner Oland as a man with an Agenda.

They’re crammed together on the train: a narrow, confined space where there’s no avoiding people you don’t like. This creates claustrophobic and tense scenes, along with a sense of Doom.

Someone on this train will not survive the trip.

Dietrich’s face, bathed in light. Image: Seanax

Shanghai Express gives us romance and intrigue, but it mostly gives us opportunity to worship Dietrich. We know this by the way the studio lighting kisses her features.

Look at the above photo. In this scene, Dietrich is shaken by an argument with the annoying Clive Brook. She leans against a wall and, with quivering hands, smokes a cigarette as if it were a religious rite.

It’s a self-indulgent shot, really, meant to impress us with Dietrich’s glowing allure. Which it does. Dietrich is nothing if not charismatic, and as we gaze at her Inner Pain, we admire how light immortalizes it.

However, the story itself isn’t the stuff of a Great Film. The script is simple and clichéd, even for 1932. What makes the film memorable is its love affair – and not the one you might think.

“[W]hile few films are more romantic than Shanghai Express,” writes Imogen Sara Smith, “the real romance is between Dietrich and the camera, not Dietrich and her leading man.”¹

For l’affair de camera, we can thank director Josef von Sternberg.

Director Josef von Sternberg with Dietrich. Image: Age Fotostock

The partnership between von Sternberg and Dietrich began in Berlin, in the late 1920s, with the film The Blue Angel. Shortly after, they went to Paramount Studios in Hollywood and made six films between 1930 and 1935. (Much has been written about their relationship, which we won’t get into here.)

Shanghai Express is the third film in the Paramount collaboration. According to The Telegraph, the film “grossed half its studio’s entire earnings for 1932”.²

No wonder. von Sternberg’s exotic world, where the usual rules have no relevance, is almost the stuff of science fiction. Naturally, Dietrich is Queen of this strange world, glorified by light and set apart from everyone else.

“There’s no doubt that von Sternberg knew cinematography inside out,” writes Farran Smith Nehme, “so much so that the American Society of Cinematographers admitted him to their ranks, a rare honor for a director.”³ Nehme quotes cinematographer James Wong Howe, who said von Sternberg was the only director he worked with4 who knew how to light a set.

Incidentally, Shanghai Express won an Oscar for Best Cinematography, and was nominated for Best Picture and Director.

Of course, much credit must be given to Dietrich herself, who is utterly mesmerizing. Does this film have flaws? Yes. Should you drop everything to watch it? Absolutely.


¹Mistress of Ceremonies by Imogen Sara Smith. (Essay from Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood Blu-ray set, 2018, pp. 27-28.)
²The Telegraph. (Retrieved September 20, 2018.) Josef von Sternberg: The Man Who Made Marlene Sparkle.
³Where Credit is Due by Farran Smith Nehme. (Essay from Dietrich & von Sternberg in Hollywood Blu-ray set, 2018, p. 64.)
4Ibid. The project Howe and von Sternberg worked on was never completed.

Shanghai Express: starring Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook, Anna May Wong. Directed by Josef von Sternberg. Written by Jules Furthman. Paramount Publix Corporation, 1932, B&W, 82 mins.



  1. Thank you for reminding me about this film! You’re so right that the love affair is between her and the camera, as it’s hard to understand her love for that dull guy (though I appreciate the surprising lack of judgment about her past). BTW, if you haven’t read it, Girls Do Film had a fun piece several years back about the costumes:

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right about the lack of judgment. I should probably give the poor slob more credit.

      Thanks for the tip re: Girls Do Film & costumes. I think I have seen that piece, but I need to revisit. Travis Bantin is fab as always.


  2. I’m ashamed to admit that I only just watched this film a few months ago for the first time. I’ve always been a massive admirer of Dietrich’s but for some reason or other, I had never watched Shanghai Express! As soon as I DID see it, though, I was blown away. The first thing I noticed about the film was how beautifully-lit and beautifully-shot it was. You’re right in saying that this film illustrates the love affair between Dietrich and the camera. Nearly every frame of this movie can be considered a work of art. I’ve never seen anything like it before – well, except “Flesh and the Devil” starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s quite a compliment that James Wong Howe gives von Sternberg. But Hollywood in the 1930s-50s featured some of the great cinematographers of all time. There was Howe, Toland, Cortez, and Mate–just to name a few!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Von Sternberg/Dietrich movies are always so bizarre yet entertaining. I can’t say that I am their biggest fan at all, but their movies always draw you in.

    You’re right in calling the photo above self-indulgent, but then von Sternberg’s movies were exactly that, from beginning to end. Occasionally, well actually almost all the time, he had the tendency to confuse cinema with glossy magazine stills. For him plot and/or character development were fairly meaningless, he had other fish to fry. What he cared about was the look, the style.

    I find Marlene’s constant posing in his movies pretty annoying after a while. All in all I say Dietrich gave more understated and nuanced performances with other directors.

    I just saw Dishonored, a pretty good but strange movie, but the last 10-15 minutes are an absolute whopper. They make up for anything that isn’t right with this film.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. An excellent piece on one of the best of the JvS/Dietrich films.

    Von Sternberg once said, responding to criticism that his films were unreal, “If you want reality, watch a documentary!” No reason to look for a solid plot line or any delving into character with their films – but if you’re looking to enter a beautifully filmed, rather seductive fantasia revolving around a stunning and enigmatic siren, you will delight in these films. I happen to love most of them.

    I’ve wondered how it was that Clive Brook was selected for the male lead in Shanghai Express. I suppose JvS may have simply figured that just about any sort of leading man would do since the entire subject of the film is his vision of Marlene Dietrich.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Speaking of beautiful “Lighting”, loud thunder and horrific lightning are trying to frighten us here (and our electricity keeps going and coming back – but that happens anyway, even when it’s not raining). Ha!!
    Marlene Dietrich was a very bold and independent woman, and the way Josef von Sternberg filmed her, says a lot about how he felt. Agreed, the real romance wasn’t within the reel, but between Dietrich and the camera (and the man behind it).
    Shanghai Express (1932), is another classic, am yet to watch.
    Nice Analysis!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Dear Ruth,

    This is a really good article! You really captured the feeling of this interesting movie. I like the way you described it.

    By the way, I would like to invite you to join “The Second Annual Great Breening Blogathon.” This blogathon, which will be taking place on October 12-17, is a celebration of the Code, its Era, and its enforcer, Joseph I. Breen. We are using this blogathon to honor Joseph Breen on his 130th birthday, which would have been on October 14. However, we are extending the blogathon to October 17 to celebrate the second anniversary of PEPS, which was founded on October 17, 2016. You can participate by breening a film that is not from the Breen Era (1934-1954) or by analyzing a Code films. You can also discuss an aspect of the Code, its influence on Hollywood, or Mr. Breen itself. You can find out more and join here:

    I hope that you’ll be able to join! We could really use your talents.

    Yours Hopefully,

    Tiffany Brannan

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This is such a great film! You are so right, the lighting played an important role in crafting her Hollywood image. I wrote my final thesis paper on Dietrich and her screen image in her first Hollywood films, so this is a topic near and dear to me! Thanks for sharing here! Its always great to see images of MD 😍

    Liked by 1 person

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