Last week, I examined The Blue Angel and Morocco starred by Marlene Dietrich and the element of “gender rebellion” against traditional values in these films. After discussing with my mentor T. Pat, I decided to look at the more profound cultural trend that she both represented and influenced and examine the film Shanghai Express through this lens.
To learn more about the cultural environment of her time, I read sections from the book Women in Film by Pam Cook and Phillip Dodd as well as The Girls by Diana McLellan. Although Dietrich was born in a traditional Prussian family with stoic values, her career as a model, singer and actress did not start until 1920s. The defeat in WWI undermined Germans’ confidence and fueled the culture of “sexual perversion”. “Made-up boys with artificial waistlines promenaded along the Kurfurstendamm…” (McLellan 61). Transvestism and deviation from traditional sexualities became the new trend of the society.
In this new trend, Marlene “was perhaps the busiest and most passionate bisexual in theatrical Berlin” (McLellan 62). Active sexual seduction in a bisexual manner was a central part of her life. On the long list of her “conquests” ran the name of the famous professor Robert Reitz, the journalist Gerda Huber, the Jewish poet Otto… . She was the subject of her sexuality and “any direct offer has to come from her” (McLellan 100-102). Her secret encounter with Greta Garbo, a Swedish American actress, left an indelible mark on both the private life and career of this star-to-be. Her sexuality, however, was ambivalent and appealed to audiences of both genders, containing “a ‘masculinity’ that appeals to women and a ‘sexuality’ that appeals to men” (Cook and Dood Icons).In a way, she embodied the gender rebellion against traditions that was taking place in Germany at that time.
With this information, I try to distinguish the unique gender rebellious elements that she carried from Germany into Hollywood.
Shanghai Express was one of the earliest films that Dietrich starred in Hollywood. In this film, Dietrich plays “Shanghai Lili,” a courtesan on board of a train bound for Shanghai. Also on board is her old lover Captain Doc. Their relationship is the thread of this train hijack story. Click here to read the complete storyline of the film.
Dietrich in Shanghai Express
A combination of her unique rebellious sexuality and traditional Hollywood elements could be clearly observed from this film. As in her previous film, Dietrich is the one to approach Captain Doc. and re-inflame his passion for her. Her attitude towards their relationship seems nonchalant and flirtatious at first. When Doc utters out his imagination for their possible ending: “We would have gone back to England, married and been very happy”, she replied playfully, “There is only one thing that I wouldn’t have done. I wouldn’t have barbed my hair” (Sternberg, Shanghai Express). Such a Dietrich response, isn’t it? Her independence in sexuality, as it seems, was successfully carried over to and accepted by Hollywood.
She plays with the ambivalence of masculinity and femininity in a sometimes erotic way. The audience gets a taste of her feminine attraction at the very start of the film, when “Shanghai Lili” boards the train and flounces her extravagant feathery coat, always smiling in that intentional yet unfathomable smile under the veil. The rumor of Shanghai Lili’s presence immediately caught the attention of every male on board. She acted in a rather mystical fashion, neither intentionally seducing the passengers nor denying her sexual attraction. Her masculine side became apparent at the second half of the film, when she acted as the heroine to protect Doc’s life in front of the rebel’s threat.
Yet some traditional Hollywood elements are also obvious in this film. The ultimate hero who kills the villain and solves the issue is Doc instead of Dietrich. In comparison to this traditional male heroism, Dietrich’s gender ambivalence seems to be shown as playful and trivial. Although Dietrich manages to retain her gender nonconformity, its power is compromised by this traditional element. Also obvious is the presentiment of exoticness in Dietrich’s character. Like other films of Dietrich in Hollywood, she is always featured in a foreign setting, whether it be Shanghai, Spain or France. In Shanghai Express, the audience obtains the background of each character in the interrogation by the rebel leader, yet Shanghai Lily is just Shanghai Lily, with no nationality and concrete identity. For me, it seems to indicate that the Hollywood film industry and American audience still treated her bisexuality as a foreign, distant element and a sharp contrast to the housewife image of American females. It seems to shockingly coincide with the American GI’s reaction to their European femmes fatales during WWII. It might not be a coincidence that Dietrich’s most famous images all come from her early films, when Hollywood and the American audience still were not able to influence her representation of herself.
Dietrich’s stay in Hollywood was more of a joke played by history than her personal will. Following her success, Adolf Hitler overtook Germany. The prosperous subculture of sexual ambivalence died and was replaced by the “Prussian masculine purity” that Hitler so fervently canonized as an axiom of the regime (Cook and Dodd 13). A critic noted that the English version of her films “sounds like a thin copy of the wonderfully strong German original” (Cook and Dodd 15). Despite the historical circumstances, Dietrich did leave a rich legacy in Hollywood. Helmut Berger, Liza Minnelli, Raquel Welch and even Madonna were among the actresses who have paid homage to Dietrich through their performances (Cook and Dodd 18-20). Perhaps her greatest heritage was to show how can a female live without the restriction of patriarchal values and dominate her own sexuality.
Cook, Pam, and Philip Dodd. Women and film: a Sight and sound reader. Temple University Press, 1993.
McLellan, Diana. The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood. St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
Sternberg, Josef Von, director. Shanghai Express. Paramount Publix Corp., 1932.
Film file.” | Berlinale | Archive | Annual Archives | 2014 | Programme – Shanghai Express | Shanghai-Expreß, http://www.berlinale.de/en/archiv/jahresarchive/2014/02_programm_2014/02_Filmdatenblatt_2014_20143108.php#tab=filmStills&item=20143108_2.
“The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood.” Goodreads, http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/407879.The_Girls.
“Women and Film.” Goodreads, http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2114916.Women_and_Film.