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The opening credits include an acknowledgment for 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."
The MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library reveals the following information about the production: Beginning in March 1926, various studios expressed interest in producing a film based on John Colton's play, The Shanghai Gesture. Paramount made the first inquiries in 1926, United Artists in 1929, Universal in 1929, Columbia and Tiffany in 1930, and RKO, Mascot Productions and Warner Bros. in 1932. In 1929, Universal, which was searching for a "red-hot smash" to improve profits for the studio, pursued a long course of correspondence with the MPAA about the Colton play. In an October 1929 memo to Universal, Colonel Jason S. Joy, then director of the MPAA, noted that "the play deals with a bawdy house which at times is unusually attractive and at other times wretchedly sordid. Into this background is woven miscegenation, illegitimacy, white slavery, murder and an opportunity to incur the ill-will of other countries. If the story were re-written so as to avoid all of these difficulties, as it would have to be, it is my honest opinion that it would be...emasculated." Although Colton wrote numerous drafts and changed the setting from a "bawdy house" to a "gambling joint" and changed the title to Mother Satan, among other alterations, the screen story was repeatedly rejected. In 1932, Darryl F. Zanuck, on behalf of Warner Bros., submitted a treatment of the Colton play which included similar changes: The principal character's name was changed from "Mother Goddam" to "Mother Satan"; she was sold into labor, not prostitution; she was married and the marriage was annulled, with the husband believing that he had arranged alimony; her daughter was "not a dope fiend and a nymphomaniac"; and "the story end[ed] on a note of tragic realization that revenge is futile and wrong." The treatment was rejected, however. In the late 1930s, Jay Sanford Tush of International Film Exchange submitted a script called Madame Chi, which was loosely based on The Shanghai Gesture but did not state its source. That, too, was dropped.
The PCA continued to dissuade all filmmakers from producing a film based on the play, and even banned the use of the play's title. In January 1941, Geza Herczeg's first treatment for Arnold Pressburger was rejected by the PCA "for the reason that it is a story of gross sexual irregularities with insufficient compensating moral values." The PCA suggested that all illicit relationships be altered, and that neither "Madame Poison Ivy" nor "Poppy" be shown as a "mistress," in addition to other changes. Pressburger continued to submit revised drafts of the script to the PCA, and in April 1941, the PCA warned that "first, and most important, it is absolutely essential that you remove from the finished picture anything that might be interpreted as inflammatory anti-Japanese propaganda." Finally, by August 1941, the producers and the PCA agreed on the necessary alterations; however, T. K. Chang, of the Consulate of the Republic of China in Los Angeles, voiced concerns that the film might adversely affect public opinion with its portrayal of its Chinese characters, as China was then in the midst of war with Japan. The producers met with Chang and the PCA, but few alterations were made.
Early Hollywood Reporter production charts and news items list James M. Cain as the author of the screenplay, but his contribution to the final film has not been confirmed. A Variety news item reported that Loretta Young was sought for the role of "Mother Gin Sling," while a Hollywood Reporter news item reported that Hans Eisler was to compose an original score. Hollywood Reporter news items also noted that Luise Rainer was tested for the lead, as was J. Carrol Naish, who starred in the play. According to publicity material contained in the copyright records, the film's budget came to one million dollars. The Chinese New Year sequence was shot in Los Angeles' Chinatown community, according to press materials. This was Josef von Sternberg's first film in two years. It was nominated for Academy Awards in the following categories: Best Art Direction (black and white); and Best Music (Scoring Dramatic or Comedy Picture).