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Depravity was the word of the day in The Shanghai Gesture (1941).Although the original play by John Colton had been heavily censored by thetime it reached the screen in 1941, it remained an unusual blend ofatmospheric photography and sets, fruity dialogue and enough kinks to fillseveral chapters in Kraft-Ebbing. The person to thank for this headymixture was director Josef von Sternberg, making the last major film of hiscareer. He was helped by an eclectic cast and crew that included a futurecongressional wife, two internationally renowned acting teachers and a manand woman who had each shared a bed with famed Russian superstar AllaNazimova. The heady mixture of talents and style has made The ShanghaiGesture a cult favorite over the years, more revered today than it wason its initial release.
Controversy was nothing new to playwright Colton, who had scandalized London andBroadway stages with Rain, his adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham'sfamous story about a South Seas trollop. Two years later, he went evenfurther with The Shanghai Gesture, a tale of murder and mayhem in aChinese bordello presided over by the diabolical Mother Goddamn. WhenHollywood started censoring its own films in the '20s under the guidance ofWill Hays, both of Colton's plays were high on the list of properties toohot for the screen. Over the years, Hays turned down 30 differenttreatments of the story, even as other forbidden properties were cleaned upto fit the Production Code.
The last person likely to create an acceptable adaptation of TheShanghai Gesture was von Sternberg, the self-consciously exoticdirector who had made Marlene Dietrich a star in such decadent films asThe Blue Angel (1930), Morocco (1930) and Shanghai Express (1932). With increased censorship in Hollywood and the more conventional tastes of U.S.audiences, his career had faltered, and after the box-office failure of his 1935 feature, The Devil Is a Woman starring Dietrich, his career seemed to beover. After suffering a nervous breakdown while working at MGM, he waspretty much finished with Hollywood. But an old friend, Hungarian-bornproducer Arnold Pressburger, needed a picture to establish himself inHollywood after fleeing war-torn Europe. Von Sternberg may also haveneeded the money to help get about 20 of his relations out of Europe.Nonetheless, he was so physically disabled, he did most of his work whilelying on a cot.
This didn't stop him from making the film distinctly his own. To theoriginal script he added two new characters: an American showgirl (PhyllisBrooks, who would retire from acting to marry Congressman Torbert H.MacDonald) and Omar, a "Doctor of Nothing" (Victor Mature, in one of hisfirst film roles) whose sardonic presence seems to mirror the director'sown viewpoint. Working with frequent collaborator Jules Furthman and KarlVollmoeller (who had worked on the script for The Blue Angel), healso got the story past the censors. Mother Goddamn became Mother GinSling, and her brothel was transformed into a gambling casino. In theplay, she took revenge on the British businessman out to close herestablishment by addicting his daughter to drugs. All that remained of thedrugs in the film version was the girl's name, Poppy. Instead of drugaddiction, she succumbed to the lure of the gambling table and a romancewith Gin Sling's lover, Dr. Omar.
The rest of von Sternberg's cast is as disparate as the clientele at MotherGin Sling's. Poppy was played by rising star Gene Tierney, who wasparticularly happy that her new husband, Oleg Cassini, had been hired toprovide her gowns. Her father was played by stage and screen veteranWalter Huston. Supporting players included famed German stage star AlbertBassermann, who taught acting in Hollywood between character roles like histurn here as a corrupt police commissioner, and former Stanislavsky starMaria Ouspenskaya, also a noted acting teacher. Despite her prominentbilling in The Shanghai Gesture, Ouspenskaya has no lines. Rumorsat the time suggested that her dialogue was cut when preview audiencesroared at the thought of a Chinese maid with a broad Russianaccent.
The most fascinating member of the film's fascinating cast, however, wasOna Munson, who had her last shot at stardom playing Mother Gin Sling. Theskinny, freckled blonde was best known for her role as Belle Watling inGone With the Wind (1939), another character she created through her sheer actingpresence and liberal applications of makeup. For The ShanghaiGesture, she also had the benefit of a series of outlandishheaddresses, the most lavish anyone had put on screen since von Sternberg'sfilms with Dietrich. Off-screen, Munson was a shy young woman, driven byher thirst for success and love. Although married three times, she alsomaintained a secret lesbian love life and, like the film's cinematographer,Paul Ivano, had gotten an early start as the protege/lover of Russian stagestar Nazimova. Since then, she had enjoyed a lengthy affair with writerMercedes de Acosta and a briefer fling, some biographers suggest, withDietrich. Tormented by her failure to achieve stardom and her unhappy lovelife, she would commit suicide in 1955.
The Shanghai Gesture opened in late 1941 to generally dismal reviews.Although praised for its heady atmosphere, which helped win Oscar®nominations for Best Score and Best Art Direction, it was loudly deridedfor its convoluted melodramatic plot and such fruity dialogue as Tierney'sattack on Munson, "You're no more my mother than a toad." It marked thedeath knell for von Sternberg's career as a Hollywood director, even thoughhis glamorous photography of Tierney helped her rise to stardom. Thecarefully written role of Omar also helped Victor Mature move on to betterroles. Removed from the world of the U.S. on the brink of war, however,the film fared quite well. Tierney was amazed during a tour of Franceyears later, to find it the film of hers that consistently elicitedquestions from fans. With the rise of the auteur school ofcriticism in that country, which deified Hollywood directors like vonSternberg who managed to impart a personal style and viewpoint on even themost unpromising projects, the film's reputation has grown over the years. Today, The Shanghai Gesture has a solid core of fanswho see it as one of the most vivid expressions of von Sternberg'sstrengths as a director, a triumph of style over substance.
Producer: Arnold Pressburger
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay: Josef von Sternberg, Karl Vollmoeller, Geza Herczeg, JulesFurthman
Based on the play by John Colton
Cinematography: Paul Ivano
Art Direction: Boris Leven
Music: Richard Hageman
Principal Cast: Gene Tierney (Poppy Charteris), Walter Huston (Sir GuyCharteris), Victor Mature (Dr. Omar), Ona Munson (Mother Gin Sling),Phyllis Brooks (Dixie Pomeroy), Albert Basserman (Van Alst), MariaOuspenskaya (Amah), Eric Blore (Caesar Hawkins), Mike Mazurki (Coolie),Marcel Dalio (Croupier).
by Frank Miller