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.