The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

 “I would have torn down the whole world to get at you.”

In Josef von Sternberg’s film The Shanghai Gesture sinister Madame Gin Sling runs a very profitable casino in Shanghai. When the casino is scheduled for demolition to make way for new real estate development, Gin Sling receives an eviction order from Shanghai government officials. Madame Gin Sling initially resists the order from Sir Guy Charteris, but then suddenly submits. She gains a slight delay–until Chinese New Year’s–the day when all debts are paid.

shanghai-gestureSir Guy’s daughter bets heavily–and loses–at the casino nightly. Her little gambling addiction goes unnoticed by Sir Guy. He’s unaware that she’s sinking deeper and deeper into debt and debauchery, or that she’s now the paramour of the decadent poetry-spouting Dr Omar (Victor Mature). Madame Gin Sling “trades in the weaknesses of others” and so she’s experienced enough to utterly ruin Guy’s daughter and blackmail Sir Guy into a better bargaining position.

The Shanghai Gesture, at first, seems tremendously dated. Americans play the roles of the Chinese characters, and this has an overall cheesy effect. Then to make matters worse, the Chinese characters (who are clearly European) speak gibberish and Pidgin English. But as the story develops, and the plot intensifies, authenticity seems to matter little. The sets are magnificent–especially the casino floor. The casino is huge, teeming with life–people cheating & attempting suicide. The impression is that the casino is a world of its own, and Madame Gin Sling rules over all. She descends to the casino floor when trouble erupts (this is frequently), and she also has the final word on who is allowed credit. A jeweler evaluates and prices jewelry as desperate gamblers exchange family heirlooms to stake the next bet, and baskets are filled with money from the gambling tables and then hauled up through holes in the ceiling. This is Madame Gin Sling’s empire, and she rules with an iron fist and long, sharp claws.

Talented acting really carries this film far. Three of the main characters–Madame Gin Sling, Poppy/Victoria Charteris and Dr Omar (Victor Mature) all really work at their roles. Ona Munson plays Madame Gin Sling magnificently. She is the ultimate dragon lady–complete with ridiculously exaggerated eyebrows, long, sharp nails, and fantastically complex hairstyles. She “washed ashore” in Shanghai–the “cesspool of the Far East” and created her fortune. While she is not a particularly sympathetic character, all attention is focused on her whenever she enters a scene.

Gene Tierney plays “Poppy” (the name she uses in the casino) or Victoria Charteris. As the film begins, she appears fresh and quite beautiful, but as the film winds on, the results of her decadent behaviour begin to tell, and her looks fade. Tierney also does an excellent job in her role, and she is at her best when she’s manipulating the men in her life–Dr Omar and her indulgent father, Guy Charteris.

When I first saw Victor Mature as Dr Omar, I cringed. He wore a fez and cloak, and yet underneath that costume, it was still Victor Mature as large as life. But, once again, as the plot wore on, I became wrapped up in his role. Omar is a delightful rogue, and he announces, “I’m not an authority on mirages or powder puffs.” From the onset, it’s clear that Poppy won’t be able to manipulate Omar. The source of his income is dubious and he tells Poppy “I can say with pride that I’ve never paid for anything in my life.” He is a moral corruptor and also a conduit between Madame Gin Sling and Sir Guy.

The universal and timeless themes in the story are ultimately what make this film quite wonderful. The stuffy British and European officials and nobility look down on Madame Gin Sling, and yet they create a class of “useable” (see the scene of girls in the cages) people by their corruption and decadence–it’s not the other way around. Madame Gin Sling is created by forces which now imagine they can destroy her. The story of her past is both terrible and magnificent.

The Shanghai Gesture is–in many ways–an amazingly enlightened film for its time. The film was rejected by censors 32 times before its release, and if you watch the film you’ll see why. After reading complaints about the quality of the DVD, I purchased the videotape, and the quality was excellent.

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