THE SHANGHAI GESTURE is a 1941 doozy, a stylized 98-minute swirl of campy sin, set around the brazenly wicked gambling joint run by the notorious ‘Mother Gin Sling’, catering to the desires of a motley international crowd of hedonists. As one entranced visitor/victim purrs “The other places are like kindergartens compared with this. It smells so incredibly evil! I didn’t think such a place existed except in my own imagination. It has a ghastly familiarity like a half-remembered dream. Anything could happen here… any moment…”
Set in the 1920’s, before Japan invaded China, the sordid anything-goes Shanghai scene is encapsulated by the casino run by the Dragon Lady known as “Mother” Gin Sling (Ona Munson). Rich and ruthless entrepreneur ‘Sir Guy Charteris’ (Walter Huston, suavely sinister) wants to buy the property and seeks to force the issue. Among Sling’s customers and acolytes are casually decadent ‘Doctor Omar'(Victor Mature), who’s not a physician but a gigolo; smart-aleck showgirl ‘Dixie Pomery’ (Phyllis Brooks); and eye-catching new arrival ‘Poppy’ (Gene Tierney), Sir Guy’s rebellious, dissolute daughter. New debts and old scores will be settled.
John Colton’s licentious 1926 play had resisted a couple dozen attempts to turn it into a film that censors would allow. Among director Josef von Sternberg’s collaborators on the adaptation that somehow succeeded were Jules Furthman and Karl Vollmoeller. Their revisions did away with the play’s drug addiction (though ‘Poppy’ is a dead-eyed giveaway) and that Gin Sling was originally ‘Mother Goddam’, and her funhouse a brothel and opium den.
Panned by critics when it came out (released on Christmas Day, yet), it did make back the $1,000,000 budget by grossing $3,500,000, placing 66th for the year when Asia became off-limits to civilians and the screen’s furtive fancies over generalized Oriental intrigues were replaced by several years of revenge bloodlust focused on Japan. Reputation restored, it now has cult status as a delirious exercise in exotic excess. It’s so outrageously over-the-top that only the most thin-skinned (and thick-headed) p.c. dweebs could get in a tizzy over some of the stereotypes. They spare no-one, anyway, as every character in sight has their nationality, ethnicity and gender taken to the Shanghai version of a woodshed (which, presumably is a woodshed).
“You’re no more my mother than a toad.” Forget decorum; drink in the décor, and soak up the deliciously sly overplaying from everyone: slick and sleek, hothouse emoting served at just the right temperature for the insinuating material. As the ethereally beautiful, self-destructive ‘Poppy’, 20-year-old newcomer Tierney practically melts the camera, and virile Mature, 38, runs with the fun as the shrug-it-away playboy. Wildest of all is Ona Munson, done up with hair that would startle Medusa, delivering insinuation like oxygen. Though she’s best-known from playing another soiled dove, ‘Belle Watling’ in Gone With The Wind, her Gin Sling is a she-demon to behold.
Josef von Sternberg’s directorial flourish has us revel in Boris Leven’s art direction (and that extravagant tapestry created by actor Keye Luke), Paul Ivano’s lush cinematography and the atmosphere accent from Richard Hageman’s score. Leven’s sets and Hageman’s music were recognized with Academy Award nominations (in 1942’s lineup rather than ’41’s). Get a smile from the dialogue-free appearance of Maria Ouspensakaya. Press replay to trying to decipher Albert Bassemann’s impenetrable accent. Wonder how censors let Phyllis Brooks (‘The Chorus Girl’ aka ‘Dixie Pomeroy’) sprawl like, well, like a ‘chorus girl’ named ‘Dixie Pomeroy’. Plus the party-favor dames in cages, ye gads…
Among the morality-evasive, philosophy-spouting habitués tossing dialects around are Clyde Philmore (‘The Comprador’), Eric Blore (‘The Bookkeeper’), Mikhail Rasumny (‘The Appraiser’, aka ‘Mischa Vaginisky’–gadzooks!), Marcel Dalio (‘The Master Of The Spinning Wheel’), John Abbott, and fave hulk Mike Mazurki (cruelly cool ‘The Coolie’).
* 1941 was Tierney Territory, with the lissome newcomer adorning such dissimilar properties as Tobacco Road, Belle Starr and Sundown. That same year she married costume designer Oleg Cassini, who garbed the cast of The Shanghai Gesture.
A neat flamboyant gesture is the credits nod to the “large cast of ‘HOLLYWOOD EXTRAS’ who without expecting credit or mention stand ready day and night to do their best–and who at their best are more than good enough to deserve mention.”