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7 Films That Capture The Glamour Of Old Shanghai
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7 Films That Capture The Glamour Of Old Shanghai

Picture of Daniel Rechtschaffen
Updated: 9 June 2017
Shanghai has always been as much myth as real city, enticing with its promises of plenitude, danger, and exoticism. A favorite destination today for the career-minded and adventure-seekers alike, Old Shanghai was already a true metropolis in the 1920s and 1930s, a center of trade, industry, finance, and artistic life. The very name ‘Shanghai’ held allure. Here are seven films that showcase Shanghai’s reputation for exoticism in the early 20th century.

Shanghai Express, 1932

Josef Von Sternberg’s ‘Shanghai Express’ is a classic, featuring two of the most glamorous leading ladies of all times, Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong, along with Warner Oland, a Swedish-American actor best known for playing detective Charlie Chan. However, the most complex and interesting figure in the film is Hui Fei, played by the luminous Wong. Companion to Dietrich’s Shanghai Lily, this courageous and world-weary high-class prostitute saves the day only to be raped by the vile Chang. Although we see little of Shanghai, it serves a crucial symbolic role as the travelers’ destination.

Shanghai Express Poster | © Paramount Pictures
Shanghai Express Poster | © Paramount Pictures

Footlight Parade, 1933

In this movie, Chester Kent struggles to produce ‘prologues’ for cinemas (short live theater productions that play before the main feature in a movie theater). The hit song “Shanghai Lil” (referring to the Shanghai Lily – see the summary of ‘Shanghai Express’) by Harry Warren and Al Dubin is performed three times over the course of the movie, and this draws on the exoticism of Shanghai for atmosphere. In one of the prologues that Chester Kent puts on, a drunk James Cagney dressed in a tuxedo weaves his way through a bar, presumably in Shanghai, filled with ironic and blasé extras, “looking high and looking low, looking for his Shanghai Lil”.

Charlie Chan in Shanghai, 1935

‘Charlie Chan in Shanghai’ gets mixed reviews among hardcore Chan fans. It features Warner Oland once again masquerading as a Chinese man, but this time as the indomitable LA-based detective. Chan is first seen cavorting with a group of children on a steamer entering the Shanghai harbor with the iconic skyline of The Bund visible in the background. Spouting his trademark stream of Confucian-style wisdom in his bizarrely efficient pidgin English, Chan also speaks Cantonese in this film (presumably his native language), with a thick American accent.

Happy Go Lucky, 1936

This films plays with Shanghai’s reputation as a place in which identity can be remade and features a lot of chasing through Hollywood’s version of Shanghai’s night-time cityscape. A singer believes her pilot husband, accused of treason, has died in the Pacific, although his body has never been found. When she takes a job in Shanghai, she is amazed to discover a man who looks exactly like her husband singing in her own nightclub act! When he does not recognize her, she decides that he has amnesia. But was he in fact a traitor who had fled to the Shanghai nightclub scene, the last place anyone would think to look for him?

Shadows Over Shanghai, 1938

In ‘Shadows Over Shanghai’ Irene Roma, a teacher at an American mission outside of Shanghai, is charged by her brother, Peter, with delivering a valuable amulet to the Sun family in San Francisco, when Peter is shot down. The amulet will somehow cause funds (we are never really told how) to be released to help the Chinese against the Japanese, and for this reason, is being tracked by the Russians and the Japanese. But Irene, who turns out to be Russian, cannot embark for San Francisco, because only Americans evacuees are allowed on the ships headed in that direction. So she decides to marry American journalist Johnny McGinty, mistakenly assuming that this will give her American citizenship.

The Shanghai Gesture, 1941

Josef von Sternberg’s ‘The Shanghai Gesture’ is a noir-ish story of murder, corruption, beautiful women, and a long-lost child. It is primarily set in a massive, opium-obscured casino owned by Mother Gin Sling (played by Ona Munson, who spends the movie balancing an astounding Medusa-like sculpture of intricate braids on her head). Gin Sling’s assistant, Omar (Victor Mature), is a nutty-looking Lebanese dressed up in a fez and white gown. The Westerners come off even worse. Gin Sling’s former husband is a sleazy businessman and his daughter Poppy (the gorgeous Gene Tierney) degenerates from being arrogant to completely deranged as she comes under the spell of Omar.

Lady from Shanghai, 1948

Rita Hayworth here plays the notorious Elsa Bannister – the epitome of the cynical and ambitious femme fatale. The film has no Shanghai scenes – Elsa and her disabled high-power defense attorney husband have just come from there – but this Lady from Shanghai draws a lot of her mystique from her association with the city. As she explains to the besotted Orson Welles character, Mike O’Hara, her parents were White Russian and she was born in Chifu, China, which O’Hara immediately designates as the second wickedest city on earth (the first being Macao). Elsa asks what he thinks of Shanghai. She had worked in Shanghai, where ‘you need more than luck…’ The very mention of Shanghai evokes her shady past.

Lady From Shanghai | © Park Circus
Lady From Shanghai | © Park Circus