The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

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. tierney“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. mother gin slingShe 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), yen 2features 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.

seduction

 

Shanghai Express

“It took more than one man toFamous still change my name to Shanghai Lily,” Marlene Dietrich tells her former lover in Shanghai Express (1932). This was before the Hays Code — just — when an actress could get away with a line like that. Dietrich plays “a woman of many casual affairs,” as Mordaunt Hall delicately put it in his review for the New York Times.

Mr. Hall was quite smitten. Dietrich, he wrote,  “. . . is languorous but fearless as Lily. She glides through her scenes with heavy eyelids and puffing on her cigarettes.” There is, indeed, the famous still of Dietrich, cigarette in hand, gazing skyward. Another of her in the train corridor wearing a negligee. This last one was too much for Vanity Fair. Director Von Sternberg “traded his open style for fancy play, chiefly upon the legs in silk, and buttocks in lace, of Dietrich, of whom he has made a paramount slut,” the magazine accused.Marlene-Shanghai-3

In fact, Shanghai Lily was reputed to have “wrecked a dozen men, up and down the China coast,” according to the friend of her paramour in the film, Doc Harvey (Clive Brook), but she never comes across as a slut. For one thing, she’s too fascinating, and she has no illusions about herself. We can’t help rooting for her, and in the course of a train journey from Peking to Shanghai, she proves her moral worth and wins her lover back.

Nearly everyone else on the train seems to be hiding something. There’s a half-Chinese warlord (played by a white actor in “yellow face,” Werner Oland, who would soon become famous for playing Charlie Chan), a disgraced French officer, a missionary, a gambler, a stuffy old lady and an opium dealer. Gradually we learn their secrets as the train is commandeered by rebels. Only the other woman of ill repute, a Chinese prostitute named Hui-Fei (Anna May Wong) demonstrates comparable courage. 

This was Wong’s greatest role in American film. Mostly she was consigned to playing delicate flowers or Dragon Lady parts. Here she smokes a lot, to great effect (I’d put her right up there with Bette Davis), and never abandons her dignity.

Definitely worth watching.

The Blue Angel

I don’t want to neglect Marlene Dietrich’s performance, or the terrific Heinrich Mann story on which “The Blue Angel” is based, but let me begin with the style of this picture.

Josef von Sternberg had a painter’s eye.  Every scene he directed is composed like an Expressionist work of art.  Take a look at some of Max Beckmann’s etchings.  Dressing Room, for example,

or Café Musik.

Now watch this clip from the film.  There you go, a mini-course on Weimar art and you get to listen to Dietrich sing “Falling in Love Again” as an added bonus.

Von Sternberg cared more about the look of his pictures than about the feelings of his actors, whom he regarded as “marionettes, pieces of color on my canvas.”  But Dietrich was the perfect marionette, and the legendary affair they conducted during the filming of “The Blue Angel” contributed to her reputation as a femme fatale, enabling audiences to see her forever after as von Sternberg did:  sensuous, provocative, cruel, and utterly irresistible.  The type of woman who leads men to their doom — and they go willingly — and sings about it afterwards.

Emil Jannings specialized in playing degraded men in German films.  As Professor Rath, the high school teacher who falls for Dietrich’s Lola Lola, his performance is so perfect it’s painful to watch.  But it rings true, the way his childlike infatuation with the cabaret singer turns into jealous rage as Lola tires of him and drifts to another man.  The original story had more of a message.  Von Sternberg chose to end with the image of the dying professor clutching his desk, as if trying to regain his lost dignity.  Meanwhile, back at the Cabaret, Lola straddles a chair and lures her next victim with a sly song.  “Watch out for blondes, they have a certain flair, for stripping you bare and then leaving you.”

Forewarned is not forearmed in this case, I’m afraid.

(9 March 2011)