Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Shanghai Express (1932)

Screen capture from TCM/Universal DVD
WHO: Josef Von Sternberg directed this, the chronological center and arguably the best of the seven masterful films he made starring the incomparable Marlene Dietrich.

WHAT: Here's what Elliot Lavine said when I asked him why he picked Shanghai Express from among all the great Von Sternberg films to play in his current I Wake Up Dreaming tribute to pre-code Hollywood:
Elliot Lavine: It's a tough call. I'd have been happy putting any of them in. I have a personal fondness for this film. Beyond that, everybody loves the train in the early '30s. The sexual tension is totally honest. You can totally believe everything that they're telling you about this relationship between her and Clive Brook, and I think people respond to it that way. You know, there's a handful of pre-codes that show out of that context and still get a great, enthusiastic crowd. 
Hell On Frisco Bay: Plus, Anna May Wong?
EL: Especially Anna May Wong. Any opportunity to get her in. And she's used to beautifully in the film. Yeah, there's a whole lot going for that film. The last time I showed it was at the Roxie a couple years ago and it was packed. Beforehand I thought "this will probably be the one that doesn't draw quite as well." 
HoFB: Because people have seen it. 
EL: Yeah, but boy they all came out. 
HoFB: Because they want to see it again! 
EL: And that is a great, great quality. People gleefully seeing a movie multiple times. It still happens.
WHERE/WHEN: Screens 7:45 tonight at the Castro Theatre and 2PM Sunday March 12 at the Rafael Film Center.

WHY: I think it's pure coincidence that both the Rafael and the Castro are showing this great film this week, but it's a terrific opportunity to see it on big screens, if you have yet to do that. More than once if you're game for that. The Rafael has booked it as part of a train film series that also includes 35mm prints of John Frankenheimer's The Train and Andrei Konchalovsky's Runaway Train, as well as DCPs of David Lean's Brief Encounter, Tony Scott's Unstoppable and, of course The Lady Vanishes (which also shows up in 35mm in Palo Alto next month as part of the Stanford's just-begun Hitchcock series). 

But I first saw it and instantly fell in love with it as part of a Castro Theatre pre-code series nearly fifteen years ago, and would definitely select tonight's option of seeing it in a similar context, if I could only attend one showing. There's something so special about seeing an early-1930s film in a single-screen theatre still essentially the same as it was in that era, as I did two weeks ago when I saw the tremendous Two Seconds when it opened Elliot Lavine's current weekly pre-code series. If you haven't already, please do read part one of my interview with Lavine. Here's more of part two:
HoFB: The Castro hasn't done a proper pre-code series in years- although Eddie Muller has tried a pre-code night at Noir City a couple times, it's even been a few years since the last one of those.
EL: I don't understand why those guys don't go deeper and I'm glad they don't, because I like having this territory to myself. For now, until somebody gets hip to it. But the Castro jumped very enthusiastically, when I proposed it to them, so I'm very grateful to those guys for seeing the value in it.
HoFB: Obviously it means that everyone felt that your August 2015 noir set was a success. 
EL: Oh yeah. We'll be back in August with another noir show. I really love the vertical programming concept. To be honest with you I was getting burned out on the whole notion of doing eight to twelve days in a row. I think it's putting a lot onto the audience. A lot of them do it. They come night after night after night. But if you took them aside secretly and said 'would you prefer doing it once a week' they would say 'yeah. We would.' I had so many people last August at the Castro.
HoFB: Will it also be Thursdays, like last year was? Or Wednesdays like these pre-codes?
EL: It'll be either Wednesday or Thursday.
HoFB: I'm rooting for Thursday. I'll be missing the first feature for this series almost every week because of my work schedule. If I race over from work I can see all the last features, though, except for The Cheat
EL: These really play well at 9:30.
HoFB: But it's also why I didn't go to your California Theatre shows last Fall. Can't get over to Berkeley on a Wednesday.
EL: I'll be doing another film noir show there in April. It has to be all digital. They don't run 35 there anymore.
HoFB: I know they brought a 35mm projector back in to screen Interstellar. Did they take it out right away afterward?
EL: It's not being used. Initially when I talked with Jed about doing a show there, I said, are you really sure you want to do it in digital? Because these aren't DCPs. These are DVDs. Blu-Rays. Are they gonna look great? And he said, 'don't take my word for it. Bring a stack of them down one afternoon and we'll sit and watch and you be the judge.' I was flabbergasted. I felt confident to do it. I can speak for this show in a great way. And we had a good crowd. Nobody complained about anything. They were just thrilled to have repertory in the East Bay.  
HoFB: There's one DVD presentation expected at this Castro pre-code series. William Wellman's Safe in Hell. I'm guessing it's too obscure a title to be given the DCP treatment yet, but there's also probably no circulating 35mm print. 
EL: Well, there was. I ran a 35 of this way back in the '90s. That's long enough ago that, yeah, a print can get completely disintegrated, and this is not the kind of film that would wind up high on the priority list, especially in the '90s. But now there's a growing awareness of the film.

HoFB: One of my favorite Wellmans.

EL: Me too. It's in my top five, and that says a lot. He made a lot of great films. This one is especially stunning. When people come to it for the very first time, especially if they've been hyped by their friends or by me, that this is gonna be a serious, major experience, they come out and say, "yes you were right. I can't believe it. Oh my God." But it is spectacular for a variety of reasons. I think one of the great reasons is the performance of that actress Dorothy MacKaill.

HoFB: Yeah. I looked at another of her films on DVD a couple days ago because I hadn't seen any of her others- The Office Wife. It's okay, but it's nothing like this.

EL: She didn't have a big body of work. Any actress in the world, if this was in their resume it'd be their calling card, but if you don't have a whole lot to back it up, you're not going to be well-remembered, necessarily. And even though Wellman is a top director, a high-echelon director, you can't expect people to be savvy to every fucking film he ever made. So this one was sacrificed.

HoFB: Do you think it's forgotten partially because of the sordidness of it?

EL: Indirectly, I think so, because, with a handful of exceptions, the majority of the pre-code films from that period, '31 through '33, when studios sold off their packages to TV stations, they excluded those. They were, more often than not, left out of the package. So, Warners might sell a hundred of their titles to ABC affiliates or whatever for Afternoon Movie, Late Show, that kind of shit. But it was a very select group. Things that showed off the studio in a way that would be family-friendly on television. So Safe In Hell didn't have a prayer.

HoFB: They might show a cut version of The Public Enemy, or maybe Night Nurse.

EL: Exactly. A film like Public Enemy was on all the time. So was [I Am A Fugitive From a] Chain Gang. You couldn't go six months without stumbling across it. And that's great, but what about Two Seconds? What about Safe In Hell? What about a thousand other films that were kind of put into the vault?
HOW: Shanghai Express screens as a 35mm print on a double-bill with Safe in Hell (which screens from a DVD) at the Castro, and as a DCP at the Rafael.