Nobody causes a bigger commotion by getting on a train than Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich). Shanghai Lily is one of the most notoriously loose women in China, so when she gets on a train from Beiping to Shanghai, all the men are excited to be on the same train as her. Well, everyone except for Captain “Doc” Harvey (Clive Brook). He’s apparently the one man who has never heard of Shanghai Lily. After the train leaves the station, is surprised to run into his former girlfriend, Magdalen. They hadn’t seen each other in five years and things have changed quite a bit in those five years. Specifically, Magdalen has changed her name to Shanghai Lily. Lily never stopped loving Doc, but he has a hard time accepting the girl he once loved now has such a reputation.
But as the trip goes on, Doc and Lily spend more time together and it becomes clear that Doc still loves her. He even still carries the watch that she bought for him. One night, while the passengers are having dinner, the train is suddenly stopped by Chinese Army soldiers and the passengers are questioned. After a spy is arrested, Henry Chang (Warner Oland), a passenger on the train, immediately sends out a mysterious telegram. The train takes off again and the passengers get ready for bed. But later that night, they are stopped again, this time by rebel troops. Unbeknownst to them, fellow passenger Chang is a rebel leader who had ordered his troops to stop the train.
Chang isn’t happy about one of his spies being arrested and now is looking for a passenger powerful enough to hold hostage to get his spy released. When they question Lily, Chang asks her to spend the night with him, but she turns him down and he has other passenger Hui Fei (Anna May Wong) brought to him for companionship instead. But since Doc is traveling to perform an operation on an important government official, he’s the unlucky one to become Chang’s hostage. Desperate to get Doc out safely, Lily offers to go with Chang if Doc is released unharmed. He agrees, and Doc is set free. But Doc doesn’t realize why he’s been set free and is devastated that Lily would even consider going off with Chang. Luckily, Lily is able to escape with a little help from Hui Fei and they get back on the train and leave again. Doc wants nothing to do with Lily and won’t listen when a fellow passenger tries to convince him she was doing the right thing. He struggles with his feelings about Lily all the way to Shanghai.
Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg made several movies together, but Shanghai Express is probably their signature collaboration. It’s a wonderful movie and is the ultimate example of what an expert von Sternberg was at making Marlene look utterly fabulous. The cinematography is exquisite and Shanghai Lily is easily the most spectacularly dressed traveler I have ever seen. Marlene has some great line deliveries in this, I especially love the way she says, “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily,” and, “There’s only one thing I wouldn’t have done, Doc. I wouldn’t have bobbed my hair.” I liked the chemistry between Marlene and Clive Brook, the only thing I wish the movie had more of is the wonderful Anna May Wong.