She was the Paris of the East. And the Whore of Asia. Shanghai in the 1930s was a dizzying mix of glamour, seediness, decadence, intrigue, and political turmoil. A city divided up by conquering countries, where her own people were relegated to third class citizens. A city would-be adventurers and femme fatales came to make their mark or destroy themselves in those opulent dens of vice. Spies, warlords, gangsters, gamblers. And drifting through it all was the sound of Shanghai music driven by the voices of its divas. Vamps. Coquettes. The voices of a city whose name was synonymous with vice. The city, the country, the entire world was about to go to war. But in her smoky nightclubs and dancehalls, the sirens of Shanghai enchanted everyone.
If you ever want to see a scene that perfectly captures a heady air of decadence and mania without going all over the top and Caligula on you, look no further than the scene in Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture that introduces us to the opulent gambling parlor operated by the enigmatic Mother Gin Sling (Ona Munson). Centered above the main gambling floor, the shot assumes a bird’s eye view of the hall and its inhabitants as it spiral downward into the fray, where people drink, gamble, and flirt with an orgiastic glee as the delirious music swells. It’s an incredibly effective and a perfect way to sum up this oddball noir drama set in the indulgent underbelly of Shanghai just prior to World War II.
Shanghai at that time was the hub of Asia, a rich seaport that every country wanted to control and where every two-bit con artist, hustler, adventurer, gambler, mercenary, and romantic could go to chase their dreams of fame, fortune, and power. It was Weimar Germany in Asia, complete with a citizenry too bleary-eyed from the decadent lifestyle prevalent in the city to realize that fascism and war was knocking on their door. The city was split up among various foreign powers all vying for increased control of the city. France had their own concession, but the International Settlement was the hub of Shanghai, and it was controlled largely by the British tai pans with input from American and French representatives as well as, as the war progressed, Japan and Germany. The population of Shanghai was truly diverse, comprised of the aforementioned nationalities as well as a massive number of Indian Sikhs, Russians and Eastern European Jews seeking asylum from the Communist Revolution and escalating Nazi persecution, respectively. The Chinese inhabitants were largely second-class citizens banned from entry into the city’s most popular places, though a number of the country’s most powerful and most famous native criminals flourished.
Set against this backdrop is the story of The Shanghai Gesture, the archetypal story of a collection of “damned souls” collected together to smoke and betray one another. Sitting in the center of the web is Mother Gin Sling, owner of one of the largest gambling and drinking establishments in the city. Ona Munson is obviously not Chinese, but if you watch old movies dealing with Asian characters, that’s nothing out of the ordinary. However, The Shanghai Gesture opts for an almost absurd approach to itself. Everything is larger than life and informed by von Sternberg’s penchant for the highly stylized, artistic approach of German expressionism. Thus Ona Munson isn’t just a Caucasian actor in fake eyelids. She’s an over-the-top near-parody of the commonplace Caucasian actor masquerading as an Asian character. Her costumes are wild, her hair and eye makeup greatly exaggerated. I doubt this was any sort of political or social commentary on whites playing Asians as much as it was simply part of von Sternberg’s overall absurdist aesthetic.
Enter into the picture British tycoon Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), who wants to shut Gin Sling’s debauched palace down to make room for his own plans for the city. Rounding out the cast of characters caught in the web are Charteris’ naive daughter (the always intoxicating Gene Tierney) who becomes corrupted by the pleasures and sins offered at the nightclub, brassy blonde Dixie (Phyllis Brooks) who comes to Shanghai and ends up getting a job at the nightclub, and suave ladies’ man con artist Doctor Omar (Victor Mature), who seduces both Phyllis and Victoria Charteris, who goes by the nickname Poppy, as a not-too-subdued allusion to an addiction and to the original story’s original setting. The Shanghai Gesture was originally a play set in an opium den, but when it made the leap to the silver screen, censors balked at the idea of having it set in such an unsavory place. Since gambling was considered a more Hayes Code-friendly vice than opium smoking, they made the switch. Sir Guy and Mother Gin Sling try to outmaneuver one another, resulting in a Lunar new Year’s feast in which Gin Sling calls together to corrupted souls that form the nucleus of the story and reveals a series of dark secrets that she hopes will keep everything and everyone under her control.
Von Sternberg, who honed his skills at creating decadence in films like The Blue Angel, expertly creates an air of sated over-indulgence in which sin and seduction has become so commonplace that the inhabitants of the city have lost all moral bearing. The sets are grand and spectacular despite this being a relatively low budget production filmed entirely on sound stages. Nothing is realistic, but everything is believable. It has a tremendous sense of style that creates grand scope where there might otherwise be none. Ona Munson’s Gin Sling wardrobe is outlandish and gorgeous, and Victor Mature looks picture-perfect as the chain-smoking Arab playboy in a smart suit and fez. Walter Huston also appears every bit the staunch and condescending British authoritarian, though he manages to invest his character with a sense of dignity and reserve that keeps him from becoming unlikable. This is largely a plot and character driven piece, and the actors have complete command of the characters and dialogue.
Despite the machinations and air of decay, there is also a sweeping sense of romance, though it’s hardly the sort of romance that makes the covers of romance novels. The Shanghai Gesture exaggerates the state of Shanghai at the time, but only just, and the whole thing take son a dreamy, almost narcotic appeal. It’s hard not to want to lose yourself in the neon-drenched back alleys and glittering nightclubs, even though you know it’s ultimately going to destroy you. There are worse ways to go, after all. More than anything else, this movie is about creating a particular atmosphere. You can’t take your eyes off the movie. It completely pulls you into this bizarre Sodom and Gomorrah of alcoholics and romantics, crushed souls and vengeful rivals.
Release Date: 1941 | Country: United States | Starring: Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Victor Mature, Ona Munson, Phyllis Brooks, Albert Bassermann, Maria Ouspenskaya, Eric Blore, Ivan Lebedeff, Mike Mazurki, Clyde Fillmore, Grayce Hampton, Rex Evans, Mikhail Rasumni, Michael Delmatoff, Marcel Dalio | Screenplay: Josef von Sternberg | Director: Josef von Sternberg | Cinematography: Paul Ivano | Music: Richard Hageman | Producer: Arnold Pressburger | Availability: DVD (Amazon)