THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (1941)


Josef von Sternberg’s 1941 film (not to be confused with Shanghai Noon, Knights, Express or Surprise). It’s a real hoot, to be polite, and almost has to be seen to be believed, and you’ll still probably doubt your eyes. It revolves around a gambling parlor (with a hint of brothel) run by Mother Gin Sling (called Mother God Damn in the play it was highly censored from). When an American entrepreneur, played by Walter Huston, wants to expand his business into the district where Mother has her parlor, Mother fights back by having a decadent Middle Easterner who quotes Omar Khayyam (played for some reason by Victor Mature in a very unconvincing accent and performance—but the movie is filled with real oddities like this) seduce Huston’s daughter Poppy, played by Gene Tierney (never a very compelling actress, but a stunning beauty) into a life of gambling and drink (drug addiction in the play—get it, get it, Poppy, drug addiction). To say the movie is bad is to be kind. The structure is so haphazard the story never really has an emotional impact; there’s a third act reveal that should have been the driving force of the movie rather than an afterthought. Because of this, the finale, which is supposed to be tragic, has a weird moral skewing. Instead of a fatal flaw bringing down the characters, it’s a fatal virtue—but it’s doubtful the three credited writers, including Sternberg, even thought in those terms; the story gets so out of control, I guess we should be glad it tried to say anything at all. The most interesting thematic aspect here is Huston’s motivation; no one cares about the immorality of the parlor in which the games are rigged and women’s reputations ruined. The only reason people want it closed is that it’s getting in the way of progress and Shanghai’s capitalistic future. Ona Munson (who was the madam in Gone With the Wind) plays the Asian madam Mother Gin Sling with all the believability of Katherine Hepburn in Dragon Seed and a makeup job worthy of Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar (not a compliment in case you were wondering). The acting styles are all over the place, but the best performances are an amazing Albert Bassermann as a practical government bureaucrat and Eric Blore, who takes his usual effeminate English butler routine and puts a wicked, decadent spin on it. There is one incredible shot: the first inside view of Mother Gin Sling’s, a multistory monstrosity that must have consumed the whole sound stage. It takes your breath away as if you got socked in the gut (Boris Leven got a well deserved Oscar nomination for art decoration). How this movie ever got any sort of international reputation is beyond me; Sternberg did very few films after this and one can see why. As a visual artist, he didn’t really have anything more to say.

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