Shanghai Gesture

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THE SHANGHAI GESTURE: Von Sternberg's Lean, Mean Summing Up of Hollywood.

Feb 28, 2007 (Updated Feb 28, 2007)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review
  • User Rating: Excellent

  • Action Factor:
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Pros:Cinematography, dialogue, setting, allegory. Ona Munson's extraordinary, sympathetic, if racist, stylization of Mother Gin Sling.

Cons:The recent Image DVD is unfortunately of poor quality, both in picture and sound.

The Bottom Line: Not campy: sardonic allegory! We're in Hell's last circle, ball rolling toward a fatal slot, except we turned the wheel ourselves, and we're looking UP instead of down.


Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.

"They took us from port to port,'' Club Owner Mother Gin Sling (Oregonean Swede, Ona Munson) confesses to her International Quarter guests at her Shanghai gesture, a final Chinese New Year's Party. Girls hoisted in cages outside their window are sold to sailors -- a charade now to amuse "the tourists" -- but in the Old Days: "They cut open my feet, put pebbles in, and sewed them shut so I couldn't run away"

This Shanghai, we are told, is not on the China Sea; nor do events occur in the present though they appear to. THE SHANGHAI GESTURE is fantasy -- half tragic, half comic -- set in an imaginary city where people are not what they seem, from not where they came, engaged in grotesque ironies. The picture is dedicated to "the extras" who inhabit this fiction.

Bearing stereotypical names, swooped by Paul Ivano's Wellsian cameras, trapped in their four-storey circular casino/brothel/opium den set, whipped on by domineering 5'5" Director Josef Von Sternberg, the "extras" are a great collection of refugee character actors: John Abbott (Poppy Smith's escort), Albert Basserman (the Commissioner), Eric Blore (the Book Keeper), Marcel Dalio (the Croupier), Mike Mazurki (the Coolie/Fate), Maria Ospenskaya (the Amah), etc.

Only the Stars -- Walter Huston (Sir Guy Charteris/Dawson), Gene Tierny (Poppy Smith/Victoria _________), Victor Mature (Doctor Omar, "thoroughbred [Babylonian] mongrel"), Phyllis Brooks ("Dixie Pomeroy"), and Munson (Mother Gin Sling, obviously a nom de guerre) -- are fakes.

In other words, we are in 1941 Hollywood, on the edge of World War II, however settings by Howard Bristol (GONE WITH THE WIND), or the music of Richard Hageman (THE LONG VOYAGE HOME), may fool us.

To Mother's Casino come delicate Poppy looking for gambling adventure (or dope?), and brassy Dixie in search of work (with a slinky gown). They are taken in hand by Doctor Omar, who might later have befriended Anna Nicole Smith. When the International Quarter Commissioner comes to tell his old friend, Mother, that Singapore Financier Sir Guy Charteris intends to evict her, she sends forth everyone in her power, to lure Sir Guy to a farewell New Year's Party, where according to Chinese custom, debts will be paid in full.

After his Star Discovery, Marlene Dietrich, left him, Von Sternberg lost creative control of his pictures. That factor, he said himself, was "the determining influence . . . despotically exercised or not, which accounts for the worth of what is seen on the screen." This man who created superb gangster genre (UNDERWORLD, 1927), self-referential Hollywood metaphors (THE LAST COMMAND, 1928), and dominant woman sagas (THE BLUE ANGEL, 1930) needed that control,

THE SHANGHAI GESTURE was Von Sternberg's last attempt to repeat past Hollywood triumphs, with new Stars (Tierny, not 21; Mature, kidding his future great lover image), and two established Stars (Huston, terrific anchor for Munson's Mother). But the film, based on John Colton's 1926 stage play, required 30 revisions to pass the censor, had to be cobbled together by an independent production company.


Recommend this product? Yes


Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older

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