Actress Marlene Dietrich had her breakthrough in 1930 with the brilliant classic Der blaue Engel, playing the lead character of "dangerous" nightclub singer Lola Lola. The film was directed by Josef von Sternberg and marked the start of a fruitful partnership. Later, when they both lived in the United States, they made six more films together, including Shanghai Express.
The year is 1931; China is embroiled in a civil war. British doctor Donald Harvey travels by train from Beijing to Shanghai. Among the travellers, he is told, is the fabulously notorious Shanghai Lily, an adventurous, free-spirited woman. Her name doesn't ring any bells, but on the journey, Harvey discovers that Shanghai Lily is his former lover Madeline. They had an ugly breakup five years earlier. The train is stopped by Chang's rebel army and Harvey is taken hostage. As it turns out, Lily still has feelings for Harvey.