The Shanghai casino run by Mother Gin Sling is like Disneyland for the depraved: a stately pleasure dome (to borrow Coleridge’s phrase from “Kubla Khan,” his opium-induced fantasy poem about the East) where Westerners go to indulge in illicit activities. “It smells so incredibly evil,” says Gene Tierney, who’s there to do a little slumming. “I didn’t think such a place existed except in my own imagination. . . Anything could happen here.”
Fresh out of finishing school—and absolutely stunning in this role—Tierney’s character “Poppy” is easily corrupted. She can’t wait to lose control. Seduced by Victor Mature’s fez-wearing Persian gigolo, she’s soon addicted to drugs and reduced to pawning her jewelry to pay her gambling debts. It’s all part of Mother Gin Sling’s plan to wreak revenge on Poppy’s father (Walter Huston), a wealthy Englishman who’d toyed with her years earlier, taken advantage of her innocence, then tossed her aside when she became pregnant.
Ona Munson, the white actress who plays Mother Gin Sling in yellowface, is lacquered to within an inch of her life in her dragon lady hairdo. Hosting a dinner party in her private quarters, she has her bare-chested minion (professional wrestler Mike Mazurki, billed simply as “The Coolie” in the credits) open the curtains in the dining room to show her guests the spectacle of women in bamboo cages being auctioned off as sex slaves. She was reduced to selling herself after her abandonment, and describes the brutal treatment she endured: “My soles cut open and pebbles sewn inside to keep me from running away . . .”
The Shanghai Gesture was a play in the 1920s, and even more louche than the film. You could get away with more in the theater, and audiences at the time were especially receptive to fantasies about Asian decadence. Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, the first Asian to play an Asian character onscreen, was a matinee idol well before Valentino. Best known today for his performance as the sadistic but honorable Colonel Saito in Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), he gained notice in the role of a Japanese ivory dealer who brands the white woman he lusts after on the shoulder in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat (1915) — an act that seemed to enhance his appeal in much the same way that Valentino’s rape of the dancing girl would in Son of the Sheik (1926). “My crientele is women. They rike me to be strong and violent,” Hayakawa allegedly told a reporter.
An early Frank Capra film, The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), features an interracial romance between a white missionary played by Barbara Stanwyck and a Chinese warlord (Swedish heartthrob Nils Asther in yellowface). Stanwyck’s character is captured by the warlord and she has an erotic dream about him, imagining him as a brutal and passionate lover, although he turns out to be a gentleman and, in a departure from the novel upon which the film was based, their mutual attraction remains chaste. Miscegenation was taboo, even before the Hays Code, and General Yen was yanked eight days into its run, the sight of “a Chinaman attempting to romance with a pretty and supposedly decent young American white woman,” as Sam Shain put it in Variety, too shocking for audiences at the time. Nevertheless, the film was selected for the opening of Radio City Music Hall.
Of course, director Joseph von Sternberg was drawn to kinky material. “The pain that fascinates and the pleasure that kills,” in Baudelaire’s famous line, was always his subject.
2 thoughts on “The Shanghai Gesture (1941)”
What crazy films these are! Though one of my idle dreams is to watch a bunch of Josef von Sternberg’s films, since there are many I haven’t seen, I hadn’t even heard of The Shanghai Gesture. And I hadn’t seen the poster for The Bitter Tea of General Yen, which is positively lurid. Obviously the swooning clench, used in that poster and in the Shanghai Gesture photo at the bottom of your post, was a common tactic. (I guess it was pretty common in general, but it connotes something more than romance in these cases.) The film’s poster, shown at IMDb, uses it too.
Surprisingly, IMDb also reports that a 1999 film used the same title, but the entry reveals nothing except that it was Spanish.
The swooning clench. Love it!
Sternberg is the connecting link between German Expressionism and Weimar decadence (its sexual transgressing, especially) and Hollywood. He was Noir before Noir was Noir, and the pairing with Marlene Dietrich was pure brilliance. Seven films! I have not seen all of them. But even his non-Dietrich films are worth watching, as I said in my review of Macao.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Comments are closed.