Pop Culture

Early Hollywood’s “Joyous Bisexual” and Her Most Daring Onscreen Roles

The moment Marlene Dietrich arrived in Hollywood, she was crossing lines virtually no one else dared to. In her debut American feature, Morocco, released in 1930, she dressed in a tuxedo to perform the torch song “Give Me the Man Who Does Things,” pausing to kiss a woman in the nightclub crowd. Having come up in Berlin’s cabaret scene in the 1920s, Dietrich was a wife and a mother by the time she became a movie star—but also a “joyous bisexual with an appetite for many loves,” as Kenneth Anger described her in Hollywood Babylon.

Dietrich’s bisexuality was a key element of her explosive stardom in the early 1930s, even if it was not quite explicitly part of the text. The kiss in Morocco is more of a provocation than an expression of lust, the ’30s equivalent of Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl.” But in the years just before the Production Code took hold of Hollywood—banishing even hints of non-hetero sexuality—Dietrich was a powerhouse, making several films with director Josef von Sternberg that established her as a uniquely alluring, rule-breaking, and even dangerous kind of star.

That persona was already firmly in place by 1932’s Shanghai Express, Dietrich and von Sternberg’s third Hollywood film together, in which Dietrich plays the mysterious but unapologetic courtesan Shanghai Lily. Set on a train from Peking to Shanghai in the midst of China’s civil war, the film starts by introducing a range of colorful characters as they board the train, including Dietrich in a dramatic veil, jet-black boa trailing behind her.

Watch Shanghai Express

But Shanghai Lily truly comes to life when we meet her in her compartment with her traveling companion, Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), a fellow courtesan—or, as a fellow passenger denigrates them, another “fallen woman.” A trailblazing Chinese American actress in the golden age of Hollywood, Wong was already a global star by the time of Shanghai Express. A famous photograph taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt at a Berlin gala in 1928 finds Wong and Dietrich posing side by side with none other than Leni Riefenstahl.

Like so many of Dietrich’s costars, Wong is rumored to have had an affair with her—the excellent novel Delayed Rays of a Star, inspired by that Eisenstaedt photograph, imagines what might have been. But what we know for sure is what we can see between them in Shanghai Express, a dynamic so charged that they don’t have to say a word to send a would-be interloper scurrying away from their compartment. Later, the nosy landlady of a boardinghouse for only “respectable people” tries to recruit them before realizing “I’ve made a terrible mistake.”

The romantic plot of Shanghai Express is between Shanghai Lily and her old flame Doc Harvey, played by Clive Brook; the queer themes, as they would be in Hollywood for decades more, remain expressly subtext. But Dietrich’s gender-bending confidence gets a moment to shine when she playfully wears Doc’s military hat while the pair revisit their lost love. And both Lily, who sacrifices herself so that Doc can be freed from the film’s villain, and Hui Fei, who eventually kills the bad guy, are women capable of taking action far more effectively than the men around them.

Shanghai Express, nominated for three Oscars including best picture, was a high-water mark for both Dietrich and Wong’s Hollywood careers. Dietrich’s performing career continued for more than four more decades, but Shanghai Express was the peak of her box-office powers. Wong, after lobbying hard for and losing the lead role in 1937’s The Good Earth, remained stuck with the kind of stereotypical roles she had spoken out against throughout her career. “Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain—murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass?” she told Film Weekly in 1933. “We are not like that.”

But Dietrich and Wong remain inextricably linked to this day. In last year’s Babylon, Li Jun Li plays Lady Fay Zhu, a character modeled closely on Anna May Wong—but who performs a provocative song in unmistakably Dietrich-ian style, tuxedo included.

This week’s Little Gold Men podcast, which you can listen to above, includes an in-depth conversation about Shanghai Express to kick off our monthlong Pride series of Oscar flashbacks. Next week we’ll tackle 1985’s Kiss of the Spider-Woman, for which William Hurt won the best-actor Oscar.

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