Dishonoring “Shanghai Express”

The beautiful jumbo lobby card from Josef von Sternberg’s “Dishonored” pictured above is part of Heritage Auctions‘ spectacular poster sale on March 23, where it currently carries a modest opening bid of $300 — bound to rise considerably as the auction approaches. Long missing from authorized distribution in the United States, the film itself is finally being offered, along with its equally elusive cousin “Shanghai Express,” as a modestly priced ($24.99) double disc set from the manufactured-on-demand TCM Vault Collection.

The Sternberg-Dietrich films might seem like prime candidates for Blu-ray release, but what we have here are the familiar transfers from Universal that have been used in the recent European releases of these titles — which means acceptable image quality with no digital clean-up, and in the unfortunate case of “Shanghai Express,” an incomplete print. Still missing is a crucial chunk of the thematically important scene in which Warner Oland’s warlord interrogates the French officer played by Sternberg’s mentor Emile Chautard — footage that seems to have vanished around the time of the film’s Laserdisc release and has never been restored. I’m grateful to David Hare for first pointing out this out to me; Liam Fennell has posted the dialogue of the entire scene dialogue in a post at Criterion Forum, and it is with gratitude to him that I reproduce it here, with the missing lines in italics:

Chang: How long have you been in the French army?
Lenard in French: For twenty years. Twenty years. Twenty years, mademoiselle
Chang, looking closely at Lenard’s passport: Your passport says nothing about your military rank.
Lenard in French, looking around bewilderedly: I don’t understand.
Lily in French: He says that your passport says nothing about your being in the army.
Lenard in French: I am no longer in it. I have been retired.
Lily to Chang: He claims he has been retired.
Chang to Lily: Explain to him if he does not tell the truth, I’ll have him shot.
Lily to Lenard in French: He says that if you do not tell him the truth, he will have you shot.
Lenard in French, suddenly looking very sheepish: When I was in the army I committed a minor offence and was discharged.
Lily to Chang: He was discharged for a minor offence.

Chang: Then why does he wear the uniform.
Lily in French, to Lenard: Why do you wear the uniform, then?
Lenard in French, very uncomfortable: I’m going to see my sister and I don’t want her to know that I have been discharged. It would cause her too much shame and sorrow.
Lily: He is going to visit his sister and he doesn’t want her to know about his disgrace.

A fifteen second gap may not seem like much, but the missing lines do contribute to the vitally important theme of deceptive appearances and elusive essences in Sternberg, stated here on a micro level but highly indicative of this meticulous filmmaker’s attention to detail.

This is no way to treat a classic, but as humble beggars before the studio gates, we have long since learned that we can’t be choosers. However compromised, the films themselves remain among Sternberg’s, and Hollywood’s, greatest achievements, and I have a few words of appreciation in this week’s New York Times column.

73 comments to Dishonoring “Shanghai Express”

  • Barry Putterman

    Junko, if DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON played as well as it sounds in description, it would have been a pretty good movie. Essentially, Wong is a kind of a Michael Corleone figure dragged in to head the Fu Manchu empire from her dying father and being consumed by it. Hayakawa is the detective out to get her and they develop a very complicated relationship entangled with the “love interest” white couple. They die together in the end.

    There are, I believe, two rather recent books about Anna May Wong. I haven’t read either to date, but maybe there are others out there who have and could comment. One of those books was also tied to a recent TCM documentary about Wong, and I’m going to try to dig that out and look at in the next day or so.

    Mention of PICCADILLY is a reminder that she, as well as Paul Robeson, was given many more opportunities in England during the 30s than in her native country.

    Nicolas, art history, like all history, ebbs and flows with the fashions of the times. At one point Hemingway is up and Faulkner is down. At another, Faulkner is up and Hemingway is down depending on what ideas are currently in vogue. Only if you view history as a straight line of progress does that become a problem and “conservative” become a dirty word. So you may be considered conservative and passe today, but prophetic and visionary tomorrow.

    Fortunately, Sternberg isn’t running for public office so it really doesn’t matter how many Catholics in Ohio support him. As long as the films remain available to us, the rest is propaganda.

  • Gregg Rickman

    David, I’ve like the Duponts I’ve seen, but Pabst remains the most underrated of the silent German “big three.” Take the brilliant reveal of Fritz Rasp’s squalid apartment in THE STRANGE LOVE of JEANNE NEY … He’s a blue ribbon director!

  • Gregg Rickman

    That’s THE LOVE OF JEANNE NEY. Sorry, got Jeanne mixed up with Martha Ivers (or Stanley Kubrick).

  • jbryant

    Wong has a decent-sized role in Arthur Lubin’s IMPACT (1949), even if it doesn’t really give her a chance to shine. The movie’s pretty decent, too; a crackerjack crime drama up until the rather disappointing courtroom finale.

  • “if DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON played as well as it sounds in description, it would have been a pretty good movie.”

    Bad as it was, I take Junko’s point that it was “interesting” if only for the pairing of Wong and Hayakawa.

  • “The sad thing about this is to feel either conservative or “passe” when discussing such matters.”

    There are some things worth conserving. To assert the enduring value of Sternberg’s and Satyajit Ray’s films is in fact radical in the context of a critical discourse leveling all cinema down to its lowest common denominators. And as Brian notes, “their works will reveal new wonders as different critical approaches are used when engaging them.”

  • Alex

    Pabst,

    Though no Murnau or von Sternberg, is a great director. He peeks in the first two-thirds of “Pandora’s Box” based on Wedekind’s “Earth Spirit” (1895) (“Erdgeist”), a drama of fine social obsevation, tracing Lulu life with rich newspaper publisher Dr Schön, that achievs some of most powerful, and nuanced, dramatic exchange, ever attained by silent film. (After that it’s the gamblers and easy dockside and underworld atmosphere — complete with a Jack the Ripper figure– of Wedekind’s garishly resolved second LuLu play, “Pandora’s Box” (also 1895).

    My next favorites from Pabst’s rich oevre are the entralling “The Love of Jeanne Ney” (a good Bolshevik agent struggle against a bad over the heart of Jeannie Ney amidst what at time seem the streets of a Paris as lovingly evoked as in a Truffaut film and amidst intrigues of Hitchcockian effectiveness) and “White Hell of Pitz Palu” (a mountain climbing romance-adventure of breadthtaking beauty) –great entertainments!

  • Alex

    The great moutain climbing and ice-cave episodes of “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe” wisely pillaged Pabst’s ravishing “Pitz Palu” footage.

  • “a good Bolshevik agent struggle against a bad over the heart of Jeannie Ney”

    Tony Williams discusses “British Agent”(1934)a Warner Bros. picture directed by Michael Curtiz here:

    http://www.wsws.org/articles/2012/feb2012/brit-f18.shtml

  • Gregg Rickman

    Tony’s article is a good introduction to a film I haven’t seen, but I’d like to add another entry to his list of cinematic portrayals of Trotsky. Actors more or less resembling Trotsky, Lenin (and you can see the intention anyway) Stalin appear around a table in Sternberg’s THE LAST COMMAND, planning the climactic bridge demolition.

  • Barry Putterman

    I took a look at the Anna May Wong TCM documentary last night. Not a particularly deep examination of the subject. And, while interviews were conducted for the project, none were included in the film. Except for a few brief clips during the end credits.

    As to Junko’s wondering why she hardly ever got to play the leads even when the characters were Asian, well, apparently the makers of this film also wonder why. It seems that Wong desperately wanted to play the lead in THE GOOD EARTH, which at least went to reigning Academy Award winner Luise Rainer. But then she tested twice for the secondary part, and was passed over for Tilly Losch. So, it would seem that in 1937, Austria was considered to be interchangeable with China.

  • Tony Williams

    Rather than Austria being “interchangeable with China”, Hollywood racism is the logical answer.

  • Barry Putterman

    If not the most ironic one.

  • Johan Andreasson

    Irony is probably a useful approach to Hollywood casting of ethnic characters. Or what could be more natural than picking Swedish actor Johan Verner Ölund (Warner Oland) for playing Henry Chang in SHANGHAI EXPRESS and Chinese detective Charlie Chan in countless movies, while at the same time casting German/Irish El Brendel and Canadian/Norwegian John Qualen as typical Swedes.

  • Tony Williams

    Don’t forget Franco Nero in COMPANEROS (1970) – “Tell him, the Swede is here” – for an out-of-Hollywood example!

  • Barry Putterman

    Of course, actors should not be limited to only those roles which co-respond to their own actual ethnicity. However, how much more expansive would that concept seem if just once Anna May Wong had been cast as a Swede?

  • Johan Andreasson

    Some names exist only in the movies. Franco Nero’s Yodlaf Peterson in COMPANEROS has to be one of the most bizarre made-up Swedish names I’ve ever seen. Possibly it’s a combination of Jörgen and Olof, but who can really tell.

    I’m not a big fan of European Western movies, but in my opinion the best Western comics were mostly French rather than American, so RIP Jean Giraud, of BLUEBERRY fame, possibly the greatest artist of Western comics (and not a bad Science Fiction artist either), who passed away just a couple of days ago.

    The mind reels trying to imagine good Swedish screen characters for Anna May Wong to portray. A great loss to film history!

  • Oliver_C

    Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud also collaborated, perhaps most memorably, with Alejandro Jodorowsky on The Incal, a series of space-opera graphic novels, subsequently a major-but-unacknowledged inspiration for The Fifth Element. Giraud himself contributed to the designs of Besson’s movie, and also Alien.

  • jbryant

    Would love to see Anna May Wong win Joseph Cotten’s heart and a seat in Congress in THE FARMER’S DAUGHTER.

  • Tony Williams

    At least, she would not go round all the actors and staff and make them pay into her swearing box! Loretta would make a fortune on a Tarantino movie were she with us today.

  • Alex

    When I wrote that “Pandora’s Box” achieves “some of most powerful, and nuanced, dramatic exchange, ever attained by silent film’ i was thinking mostly backwards, to films like Von Stroheim’s “The Merry Widow,”
    and Dreyer’s “Passion of Joan of Arc.”

    Had I been thinking of “powerful, and nuanced, dramatic exchange” in sound film as well as silent, I’d have had to include a film I just caught up with today, Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation.”

  • Lou Spector

    Cross my heart and hope to die, but the last time “Shanghai Express” was shown on TCM, the “missing” 15 seconds were there. And no, I wasn’t smoking anything…

  • jbryant

    Lou: If you’re right, TCM must have swapped out their usual print very recently. As I mentioned upthread, a few days ago I finally got around to watching the recording I’d made from a TCM airing. The jump cut was there. I’m not sure exactly when I recorded it–I suppose it could have been a few months ago. I do know they’ve aired it since, and it would be just my luck to miss a complete print!