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The Shanghai Gesture
Remind Me

The Shanghai Gesture

Depravity was the word of the day in The Shanghai Gesture (1941). Although the original play by John Colton had been heavily censored by the time it reached the screen in 1941, it remained an unusual blend of atmospheric photography and sets, fruity dialogue and enough kinks to fill several chapters in Kraft-Ebbing. The person to thank for this heady mixture was director Josef von Sternberg, making the last major film of his career. He was helped by an eclectic cast and crew that included a future congressional wife, two internationally renowned acting teachers and a man and woman who had each shared a bed with famed Russian superstar Alla Nazimova. The heady mixture of talents and style has made The Shanghai Gesture a cult favorite over the years, more revered today than it was on its initial release.

Controversy was nothing new to playwright Colton, who had scandalized London and Broadway stages with Rain, his adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's famous story about a South Seas trollop. Two years later, he went even further with The Shanghai Gesture, a tale of murder and mayhem in a Chinese bordello presided over by the diabolical Mother Goddamn. When Hollywood started censoring its own films in the '20s under the guidance of Will Hays, both of Colton's plays were high on the list of properties too hot for the screen. Over the years, Hays turned down 30 different treatments of the story, even as other forbidden properties were cleaned up to fit the Production Code.

The last person likely to create an acceptable adaptation of The Shanghai Gesture was von Sternberg, the self-consciously exotic director who had made Marlene Dietrich a star in such decadent films as The 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 be over. After suffering a nervous breakdown while working at MGM, he was pretty much finished with Hollywood. But an old friend, Hungarian-born producer Arnold Pressburger, needed a picture to establish himself in Hollywood after fleeing war-torn Europe. Von Sternberg may also have needed 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 while lying on a cot.

This didn't stop him from making the film distinctly his own. To the original script he added two new characters: an American showgirl (Phyllis Brooks, who would retire from acting to marry Congressman Torbert H. MacDonald) and Omar, a "Doctor of Nothing" (Victor Mature, in one of his first film roles) whose sardonic presence seems to mirror the director's own viewpoint. Working with frequent collaborator Jules Furthman and Karl Vollmoeller (who had worked on the script for The Blue Angel), he also got the story past the censors. Mother Goddamn became Mother Gin Sling, and her brothel was transformed into a gambling casino. In the play, she took revenge on the British businessman out to close her establishment by addicting his daughter to drugs. All that remained of the drugs in the film version was the girl's name, Poppy. Instead of drug addiction, she succumbed to the lure of the gambling table and a romance with Gin Sling's lover, Dr. Omar.

The rest of von Sternberg's cast is as disparate as the clientele at Mother Gin Sling's. Poppy was played by rising star Gene Tierney, who was particularly happy that her new husband, Oleg Cassini, had been hired to provide her gowns. Her father was played by stage and screen veteran Walter Huston. Supporting players included famed German stage star Albert Bassermann, who taught acting in Hollywood between character roles like his turn here as a corrupt police commissioner, and former Stanislavsky star Maria Ouspenskaya, also a noted acting teacher. Despite her prominent billing in The Shanghai Gesture, Ouspenskaya has no lines. Rumors at the time suggested that her dialogue was cut when preview audiences roared at the thought of a Chinese maid with a broad Russian accent.

The most fascinating member of the film's fascinating cast, however, was Ona Munson, who had her last shot at stardom playing Mother Gin Sling. The skinny, freckled blonde was best known for her role as Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind (1939), another character she created through her sheer acting presence and liberal applications of makeup. For The Shanghai Gesture, she also had the benefit of a series of outlandish headdresses, the most lavish anyone had put on screen since von Sternberg's films with Dietrich. Off-screen, Munson was a shy young woman, driven by her thirst for success and love. Although married three times, she also maintained a secret lesbian love life and, like the film's cinematographer, Paul Ivano, had gotten an early start as the protege/lover of Russian stage star Nazimova. Since then, she had enjoyed a lengthy affair with writer Mercedes de Acosta and a briefer fling, some biographers suggest, with Dietrich. Tormented by her failure to achieve stardom and her unhappy love life, 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 derided for its convoluted melodramatic plot and such fruity dialogue as Tierney's attack on Munson, "You're no more my mother than a toad." It marked the death knell for von Sternberg's career as a Hollywood director, even though his glamorous photography of Tierney helped her rise to stardom. The carefully written role of Omar also helped Victor Mature move on to better roles. 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 France years later, to find it the film of hers that consistently elicited questions from fans. With the rise of the auteur school of criticism in that country, which deified Hollywood directors like von Sternberg who managed to impart a personal style and viewpoint on even the most unpromising projects, the film's reputation has grown over the years. Today, The Shanghai Gesture has a solid core of fans who see it as one of the most vivid expressions of von Sternberg's strengths as a director, a triumph of style over substance.

Producer: Arnold Pressburger
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay: Josef von Sternberg, Karl Vollmoeller, Geza Herczeg, Jules Furthman
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 Guy Charteris), Victor Mature (Dr. Omar), Ona Munson (Mother Gin Sling), Phyllis Brooks (Dixie Pomeroy), Albert Basserman (Van Alst), Maria Ouspenskaya (Amah), Eric Blore (Caesar Hawkins), Mike Mazurki (Coolie), Marcel Dalio (Croupier).

by Frank Miller