There are only two thespians I had previously heard of in this picture: Marlene Dietrich, of course, as Shanghai Lily and Eugene Pallette as Sam Salt. Mr. Pallette was almost instantly recognizable by his voice alone. Film goers may remember him as Friar Tuck in The Adventures of Robin Hood 1938 (“Give me back my mutton!“).
The real star of the show was Southern Pacific Railroad #2428, a P-3 class 4-6-2 Baldwin-built steam locomotive. I believe this was the same engine used to represent two different trains. Pulling out of Peiping (Peking), the engine is numbered 4234, then the “hostage train” is numbered 2428. To further complicate things, there are only Chinese characters in the number boards to reference, but at least the wheel arrangement matches.
Anyhoo, let’s take a look at Hollywood’s interpretation of Chinese rail transport during an ongoing civil war. Hen hao, xièxiè !
Fixing to leave Peiping, the engineer looks back for the highball. Cab side lettering reads “4234” in Chinese characters; Later on in the movie, the engine characters are switched to “2428”.
Here is a link to sister SP locomotive #2429 to see what our film’s 4-6-2 looks like without the set dressing.
No Asian-themed picture from the black & white era is complete without an enormous gong. The characters read, “Your soul or spirit (God, Buddha, etc.)”; In a nice touch, the movie begins with a trainman filling a friction-bearing journal with oil. Note the lifted journal cover.
Other details include the train board (route) of the Shanghai Express. The route is: Peiping, Tientsin, Yenchow, Chinkiang, Tsinan, Sutsien, Pukow, Shanghai. A coolie stands next to the driving wheels of the 4-6-2 locomotive. Whoa, Camel, Whoa!
Upon the approach of SP Extra 4234 West, a crowded street clears to make way — except for one stubborn bovine. Once the horned beast (and its’ calf) are lured off the track, the Shanghai Express is on its way.
Now out on the high iron, the movie concentrates on the train “interiors” (obviously sets). Lily meets up with a former flame, Captain Donald “Doc” Harvey (played by Clive Brook) and starts things off with a heavy handshake; meanwhile Sam Salt hits on mysterious Hui Fei (played by Anna May Wong) our film’s bra-less wonder [rowr-ROWF!].
More interiors. That enormous contraption Lily is fiddling with, is a record player. She lugged that monster onboard and is loudly playing American Jazz records as compartment mate (and kindred spirit) Hui Fei looks on.
This has got to be the largest dining car set ever built. The ceilings appear to be at least 10 feet tall and the car is wider than anything on rails. Easier to film in, I suppose. Nice decorations and dinnerware.
At some point, the Express gets stopped and we get an external view of a baggage car, some sort of wooden 3rd or possibly 4th class coach and a restaurant car. Following the diner (pictures later on), are two sleepers and an observation car.
“Hey, baby, what’s your sign?”; “Buzz off, creep!”
Doc is having a smoke on the observation car platform. “Did you miss me, Doc?” Oh, he did, he did. He still has the nifty Hamilton pocket watch she gave him 5 years ago. Talk about carrying a torch.
Until this review, I had never seen Shanghai Express 1932. Every time Marlene Dietrich spoke, I immediately thought of Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles. Ms. Kahn’s interpretation of Dietrich was so dead on, it was distracting as I watched this movie.
Filmed “day for night”, this is my favorite train scene of the movie. IMDb Trivia mentions that one of the locations was the SP Chatsworth, CA depot and judging from that last B&W photo, this is probably it. AFAIK, this depot is no longer standing circa 2022.
SP #2432 is putting on a fine display of smoke as it approaches the camera. Notice the assortment of freight cars and an obvious SP wood caboose on side tracks. Also, there’s a guy riding the engine’s pilot waving a white surrender flag with a Union Jack on the side of the smokebox.
Hui Fei is really getting fed up with the constant attention, at one point pulling a dagger to dispatch one particularly nasty warload. Woof!
Finally the train is cleared to leave town and does so with smoke and steam blasting skyward. In this scene the Chatsworth depot has been “dressed” with a fake bean pole roof and even a Chinese-style gate.
On the letterboard of the 4-5 passenger cars, you can read “Tientsin – Pukow”. The rear observation car also sports a natty striped canopy and lantern marker. And yes, the railroad water tower features a huge Chinese character which says, “Water”.
Now four hours late, the Express finally arrives in Shanghai. Much to her consternation, Hui Fei has made all the papers for offing the rebel leader, back there near Chatsworth. The press is on hand (wearing pith helmets) to get her story. No pictures, please!!
Thus ends the train scenes. Jiéshù
Here’s what IMDb has to say about Shanghai Express:
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