07 June 2008

On the train with Marlene

One of the great frustrations for lovers of classic films over the years has been those movies that are NOT available on DVD. Gradually that list has diminished but there are still some greats that have yet to be released. This would include many of director William Wellman's works such as Wild Boys of the Road, Heroes for Sale and Wings. Besides Wings silent classics like Greed and The Big Parade await release. A few Jean Harlow gems such as Red Dust and Bombshell are unavailable. Last night I got to watch (thanks to Turner Classic Movies, the greatest TV channel on cable) Shanghai Express starring Marlene Dietrich, directed by Joseph von Sternberg. While other Dietrich greats such as Blonde Venus and Morocco are part of the Marlene Dietrich Glamour Collection, Shanghai Express is nowhere to be found on DVD.
Its a crying shame as this is a true classic.
von Sternberg directed six of Dietrich's films and the two were lovers. One wonders if von Sternberg's adoration of the German-born star influenced the manner in which the camera (he often performed his own cinema photography) lovingly focused on Dietrich, particularly her face in medium range shots. Of course Shanghai Express was made in the early 1930's a time when Hollywood in general knew how to create and promote female stars. Shanghai Express is the ultimate star vehicle. While the story as a whole is excellent and well told, to watch it is to, if not fall in love with Dietrich, at least become entranced by her.
In short the film is about one journey of the express train from Peking to Shanghai. As in John Ford's Stagecoach, a disparate cast of characters are thrown into a journey fraught with peril and filled with romance.
Not incidentally Anna May Wong co-stars. She is very nearly in Dietrich's league which is high praise indeed. In fact TCM showed the film to focus on Wong as part of their look this month at Asians in cinema. It was an excellent choice.
Now someone get this thing out on DVD. I'll buy the first copy.

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