Shanghai Gesture, The (1941)

“It smells so incredibly evil… I didn’t know such a place existed, except in my imagination.”

Synopsis:
The thrill-seeking daughter (Gene Tierney) of a wealthy businessman (Walter Huston) becomes a regular patron at a gambling house in Shanghai owned by “Mother” Gin Sling (Ona Munson), who is upset that Huston is trying to force her to move her establishment to another district.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary refers to this Josef von Sternberg-directed outing — a “much cleaner” adaptation of John Colton’s 1926 Broadway play — as “an absolutely ridiculous film”, citing this as the “reason that it has a cult”. He notes that the “extremely weird, overwritten, often dull script” — which is “full of awkward introductions, lectures, people yelling at each other, [and] double entendres” — “comes across like a clumsy first draft that was filmed only because the next 20 drafts were lost”. He insists that “performances by the entire cast — including Victor Mature as a poetry-reciting Arab — are outrageous”, and “so is the ending”. He concludes his review by noting that the “strangest [fact] of all is that von Sternberg didn’t recognize his folly and inserted a few inspired touches along the way that might have been saved for a better picture”.

As evidenced by comments on IMDb, The Shanghai Gesture has retained its cult status, with one user referring to it (with notable delight) as a “campy trainwreck”. Fans seem to especially enjoy both Gene Tierney’s rather nuance-free performance as the spoiled young heiress (whose addiction to gambling is here used as a stand-in for drug addiction, as depicted in the original play), and the presence of Una Munson’s truly outrageous hairpieces; as Peary cheekily notes, she “obviously had hair done by someone who had learned to tie shoelaces”. Indeed, an entire thesis could likely be written on what, exactly, Munson’s — wigs? can you call them that? — give away about her character’s state of mind, particularly as they become literally unbalanced near the end of the story (see still below). Regardless, Munson’s central performance as ‘Mother’ Gin Sling remains the film’s dominant force: she so fully inhabits this archetypal “Dragon Lady” that we’re immediately willing to suspend all disbelief about a white woman portraying an Asian.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ona Munson as Mother Gin Sling
  • Fine cinematography

  • Oscar-nominated art direction
  • An enjoyably pulpy script: “I have no country; and the more I see of countries, the better I like the idea!”

Must See?
Yes, for its cult status.

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One Response to “Shanghai Gesture, The (1941)”

  1. A once-must; von Sternberg’s ‘gesture’ is too bizarre to ignore.

    Not easy assessing this film since it’s not really what it was meant to be: gambling is no substitute for sex, nor is booze for opium, nor a casino for a brothel. The hit Broadway play – with its ingredients intact – does sound more potent than the censored screenplay it became.

    As well, it’s unfortunate that some of the political background of the situation was not thrown in, making things more urgent than what mere business demands can supply.

    I suppose it’s the lack of the above that makes me feel this film is a bit flimsy overall, plot-wise.

    The main actors (esp. Munson, Huston, Mature) are fine, with one exception: sadly, Tierney is not seasoned enough at this point to really go mano-a-mano either with Huston or Munson. (As a result, it’s Tierney’s hysterics that, in part, give the film a camp stamp – along with Munson’s Dragon Lady demeanor and hair. I can understand how camp is derived from this film – and I suppose it’s legitimate in this case, even if I think that’s pushing things to a more private extreme.)

    One of the real stars of this show, of course, is the casino. Now *that’s* impressive!

    I’ve seen this a few times and, frankly, it doesn’t leave me with much. But it does have that von Sternberg flair in enough respects to give it a whirl.

    Fave scene: Munson explains how she became ‘Mother Gin Sling’. [Note: the character’s name in the original play is ‘Mother Goddam’ – the title, incidentally, of one of the Bette Davis biographies. Hmm…]

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