Heck yeah I’m jumping out before the rest of the gang. When you see the entries for my blogathon this upcoming Saturday, you won’t want to read what little ol’ me has to say about “THE SHANGHAI GESTURE.” But you’re here with me now. I’ve got you! And I have a lot to say. It’s von Sternberg…so sit back, relax and pay attention, kids! I’m going to take you on a wild ride. I promise NOT to give away plot spoilers. Read on MacDuff –
I find “THE SHANGHAI GESTURE” to be…one heckuva movie. It doesn’t have the relentless driving energy of “Night and the City” but it is one of the great roller coaster movie rides I’ve ever had. It has more extras than “Ben-Hur” “GWTW”and “The Ten Commandments” combined. Or perhaps it just seems like it since there’s a lot going on in the casino setting.
The film is directed by that madcap, zany JOSEF VON STERNBERG of Dietrich fame and cinematic excess. It is an opulent, overloaded, overcooked, three-ring circus and I love it! This was directed near the end of his illustrious career and von Sternberg fills the screen with interesting characters and character actors. Wild! There’s a strange halting way people converse with each other in this movie…like there’s an added beat between each person speaking. Whatever that is, and I fear I’m not describing it adequately here…it does add to the off-kiltered nature of the movie.
“The Shanghai Gesture” makes a number of commentaries on the power of racial privilege, relationships and imperialism. Some points hit us over the head, while others are subtle. Some of these points include:
- Horrid pidgin-English spoken by actors NOT Asian. ( Hey, the Asian actors speak just fine ).
- Racial stereotypes spin on its head in the scene between Mother and Poppy:
MOTHER: “Behave yourself Poppy. You’re in China and you’re white. It’s not good for us to see you. You’ll bring discredit to your race if you continue.”
POPPY: “Don’t preach to me. And let my race take care of itself!!”
- Relationships are generally not treasured, but used as bargaining chips.
Look, there’s a whole lotta shakin’ going on in this movie, but at its core, it’s the story of revenge. Let’s take a look at the cast of characters.
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THE CASINO AS CHARACTER
This is the wildest casino I’ve EVER seen in a movie. ( Some casino movies include: “Casino” “Diamonds Are Forever” “Croupier” “The Cooler” and “The Honeymoon Machine” ). So much goes on in von Sternberg’s casino. It is hustling, bustling and alive with extras. And the spinmeister…with eyes in the back of his head, and tentacles reaching for chips and money and jewelry: MARCEL DALIO, Hollywood’s ultimate croupier. You know I swear, I would put him up against any real croupier from the best casino in Monte Carlo. From the overhead shot, “The Shanghai Gesture” casino looks like the seven rings of hell or a snake pit. And in any case Toto, you know we’re not in Vegas anymore.
I contend this set rivals Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.” The casino’s uncaring, unblinking eye witnesses the buying, selling and gambling of souls. Peoples’ valued possessions are appraised, bartered and devalued simply for just…one…more…spin…of…the…roulette… wheel. It’s a pulsating living thing, with people the life’s blood gambling through its veins.
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THE ORIENT MEETS BROOKLYN:
I love PHYLLIS BROOKS in “The Shanghai Gesture.”
Brooks plays chorus girl Miss Dixie Pomeroy. Can you get anymore Brooklyn or any more chorus-y than that? She is so delightfully out of place here, with nothing really to do but be very American. She sashays through scenes and rolls her eyes like a younger version of Mae West. With big round eyes and blonde hair in a sea of brunettes, she stands out in Shanghai.
I love her flat twangy voice, while all around her e-nun-ci-ate ev’ry syllable. She and her American colloquialisms are joyfully discordant and brings us back to Earth in this exotic setting. She’s not afraid to stare down the hoity toity Poppy Smith or playfully remind the high and mighty Sir Guy Charteris where they met before. She’s got Dr. Omar’s number and can rub elbows with the high society types summoned to this dinner party, all the while keeping it real.
When she’s told how the casino owner would eat her up like a cat would a mouse, her reply…
“Yeah? That only makes me more hungry. When do we eat?”
In fact, nothing seems to frazzle the sassy brassy Miss Dixie Pomeroy. And Phyllis Brooks plays her to the hilt.
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SAMSON WEARS A FEZ
VICTOR MATURE ~ Dr. Omar. Just don’t look for any medical degree unless his sheep skin is in his pants.
Mature has great fun with this part. It is only his fifth or sixth motion picture. He doesn’t play it for laughs but he knows it’s all a joke. Listen to the way he says: “my sweet” “my little one” “…my little broken-footed antelope.”
Mature is sooo sensuously serpentine and tactile in this movie. Watch how he fondles Poppy’s dress when he talks to her:
“In short, I’m a thoroughbred mongrel. I’m related to all the earth. And nothing that’s human, is foreign to me.”
Hmmmmm….mmmm…that covers “lots” of things. He hypnotizes and bathes her with his attention:
POPPY: “Then may be you can explain how our friends just vanished.”
OMAR: “We were alone since I first saw you.”
Oh hell…he could talk to me, anytime. Dr. Omar is self-deprecating, weaves a wicked tale and is strangely truthful if you’re really hearing what he’s saying. His exoticism is mesmerizing:
“My birth took place under a full moon on the sands of Damascus. My father was an Armenian tobacco dealer and was far away. And my mother – the less said about her the better. She was half-French and the other half is lost in the dust of time.”
The signpost to Poppy’s undoing is signalled when Omar tells her:
“I wonder how you’d look with your hair down.”
See, that’s how it always starts, when you let your hair down. If you’ve seen the movie you know what I mean. When you see the movie, you’ll know what I mean. Poppy is no match for him. You see, Omar has no problem stringing women along until they are strung out…then drops them. He’s a master of manipulative opportunism.
I think Victor Mature has been under-rated as an actor, probably because of his beefcake status. He was a big good-looking man. ( That’s a crime? ) No, he’s not everyone’s cup o’ tea, but when I see him I believe him, whether he was a gladiator or cowboy; caveman or cop. I believe him in the arms of Delilah and I thought he was perfect in this movie.
Being a gigolo doesn’t seem to hurt his manhood in the least:
POPPY: “Were you paying for the drink or was she paying for them?”
OMAR: “I can say with pride I’ve never paid for anything in my life.”
POPPY: “Do you think you can keep up that enviable record?”
OMAR: “Why not?”
And von Sternberg gives Mature a nice close-up when he gets a glass of water thrown in his face. Wet or dry, and working his cape like nobody’s business, Dr. Omar is not above being bought and paid for. Buyer beware.
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DODSWORTH TAKES A WRONG TURN & FINDS A FORTUNE COOKIE IN THE SIERRA MADRE
WALTER HUSTON ~ Sir Guy Charteris. Dang, he was just too cool for school wasn’t he? In “The Shanghai Gesture” I have to admit I found him handsome, distinguished, cold, imperious and loved him. I loved the sound of his voice and his slow measured way of speaking. He has deep set eyes and the way he’s lit, you sometimes couldn’t see them.
As Sir Guy Charteris, he is a man who’s used to getting what he wants. When he’s sitting in his chair going over his plans with his secretary, the phone rings. He’s not 12~inches from the phone, yet when it rings he tells her to pick it up. ( I had to laugh ). He wheels and deals without second-guessing himself. Everyone does his bidding. He holds your life in his hands…you’re just a name on his bulletin board. He’s confident and certain about everything. ( How can this be the same actor who will win an Academy Award as a grizzled old prospector in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”? ). He walks up to Mike Mazurki roughly handling his jacket because Mazurki’s nothing but a “coolie” to him. ( Their term not mine ). But no one ‘handles’ Mike Mazurki and he firmly moves Sir Guy’s hand from touching him. ( What a career this former wrestler carved out for himself ). Even that doesn’t phase Sir Guy. I loved his certainty about things. He has one weakness though…his daughter, Victoria. He’s a single parent. And with her, he’s the Rich Doting Daddy. Ev’ry girl should have one. 😉
“It’s not unusual of me to be solicitous about you. You’re all I have Victoria. And I’ve spent a good deal of my life trying to protect you from anything that could possibly hurt you.”
When he has to chide her, he’s not ranting and raving. He still uses that same flat measured tone letting her know what he EXPECTS of her.
His reaction is priceless when he sees his daughter again. But that’s later, later in the film.
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BELLE WATLING TRADES THE OLDEST PROFESSION…FOR A PAIR OF DICE, AND LOTSA HAIRSPRAY
“I always pay my debts…a hundred fold.”
Where do you go after you’ve played a Madame in the biggest, most prestigious movie of the entire 1930’s? ( “GWTW”, need you ask? ) You work with the director that made Dietrich a legend. ONA MUNSON is Mother Gin Sling.
She is amazing as the woman who runs the gambling casino. Gambling casino…brothel. What’s the diff? She runs rings around Rick’s Cafe Americain. She is described as:
“The most cold-blooded dragon you’ll ever meet. She’ll devour you like a cat swallows a mouse.”
Her entrance is heralded by a gong and music swelling. She comes through beaded curtains ( Is there any other way? I guess as every good “Asian” actress must in the 30’s & 40’s) and we soak her in. Munson stands: almond-shaped eyes made up to heighten their shape; hair coiffed high in its lacquered Medusa hairstyle ( a la Patti LaBelle ), gowned covering her from head to toe wrapped like a mummy’s shroud. She stands at the top of the landing surveying her casino resembling something out of Dante’s inferno; a casino you know she just built out of blood, bribes, sweat and tears. She descends into hell, the seas part for her as she walks down the steps. Her gait is slow…she glides.
ONA MUNSON is the best thing about “The Shanghai Gesture.”
She is just as strong as Sir Guy and has as much business savvy as he. But she does have a slight heart; she deigns to give a losing gambler more money. But she is not above bribing the police or possibly having someone killed. ( Look, you don’t have Mazurki around just for rickshaw work ).
She’s confident. And Mother Gin Sling is just as determined to stay open as Sir Guy is about closing her place:
“Every so often Shanghai decides to clean itself like a swan in a muddy lake. I shall not move and I certainly shall not close.”
The gauntlet is dropped.
She doesn’t suffer fools lightly. When Eric Blore gets squeamish about her list of dinner party guests, she tells him:
“Stop behaving like a disabled flamingo and put down Sir Guy Charteris.”
Ha! Hokey. But I’m buying whatever Mother Gin Sling sells.
Again, the voices…the voices. I’m loving the way she speaks. Short staccato clips (am I explaining that right?) Munson gives it her all. As Mother Gin Sling, she doesn’t back down from confrontation either. When Poppy Smith, the snippy little whipper snapper, comes off antagonistically to Mother Gin Sling, she doesn’t back down. When Poppy makes fun of Mother’s name, she replies:
“There was a girl called Whiskey Soda too. And another one called Miss Martini. And one called Scotch Hi-Ball and another Benedictine. In other places I might’ve been called Rose or Violet or Lili or even…Poppy.”
BURN! Mic drop. Mother Gin Sling tells her confidante:
“Find out who that Smith girl is. I like her. She has spirit.”
Poppy’s got spunk. Mother likes spunk! I think she realizes she’s met her match with this junior league debutante. Poppy will probably use her visit to the Orient as fodder for cocktail conversation at 21. Here, she can add notches to her belt before she marries a nice staid “Wall Street” type. (Did you get a load of her escort at the bar?)
But Poppy is small~fry. Mother Gin Sling’s big battle is with Sir Guy. And she’s “got” something on him she’ll use to keep her place open.
“You’re plotting your revenge like an engineer.”
They do say “revenge is a dish best served cold.” By the by…Ona Munson looks positively STUNNING dressed in all white in that dinner party scene!! That whole scene is a wonderfully bizarre extravaganza of food and wealth.
Mother Gin Sling is a complicated woman. She’s not just the one-note playing of a daughter of Fu Manchu. Nor is she The Inscrutable as Hollywood would have it. Ona Munson plays her cold and calculating but also gives her a soft spot. She gives sage advice to Poppy:
“Fortune can’t be forced. You know, there’s such a thing as good fortune.”
Poppy’s not listening.
When Mother Gin Sling unleashes her revenge on Sir Guy, her words fire like a machine gun. Anger, hurt, tearfulness are all mixed in her voice when she says:
“Do you know what the China Sea looks like to a boat filled with passengers without hope? Told to laugh and be gay and kicked into not weeping. The soles of my feet cut open with pebbles sewn inside to keep me from running away. I don’t know what kept me alive unless it was the hope of a nice social evening like this one!”
She’s hard, she’s soft. She spits out each port of call she was taken to like daggers; one memory more degrading than the next. It was embarrassing to watch her revelation done in front of all those guests. But she doesn’t care. She has one more thing up her sleeve.
I IMDB’d Ona Munson—> http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0613262/bio. And no, I do not mix her name up with Osa Massen or Ilona Massey. Yes, I must confess I have only seen three of her movies, “Five Star Final” being the third one besides “Shanghai…” and “GWTW”. Munson has presence, bearing and style; I’m sorry to read she ended her own life. She helps makes “The Shanghai Gesture” much more fun for me. Her look is so over~the~top, but Munson doesn’t play it for laughs. She is utterly magnificent as Mother Gin Sling.
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Now if you want to see a spectacular performance, I’m saving the best sole reason to see “The Shanghai Gesture” for last…
BEFORE BRITNEY, PARIS, LINDSAY and KIM…THERE WAS POPPY
Gene…GENE. GENE TIERNEY plays Poppy Smith. Perfectly coiffed…impeccable manners… the class and bearing of someone with money. She speaks well, wears her beauty like Mona Lisa, a little cold…and…unattainable.
“THE SHANGHAI GESTURE” would be Tierney’s sixth motion picture. Audiences couldn’t know what her screen persona would evolve to, so maybe I’m cheating talking from the future of 2018 rather than the past of 1941. See, I’ve seen her in future ( “Laura” ( 1944 ) / “Leave Her to Heaven” ( 1945 ) / “The Ghost & Mrs. Muir” ( 1947 ), etc. ) before I saw her beginning ( “…Frank James” 1940 ). I saw the cool, composed, sophisticated, classy persona she would grow to become, first. Shock and revelation overcame me seeing Tierney come unglued. We watch the spectacular downward spiral of debutante Poppy Smith in this very showy role for young Gene. She’s haughty, over-confident, demanding, throws tantrums, besotted by love and ends up a hot glorious mess. Yes, this movie belongs to Mother Gin Sling, but Tierney’s ‘Poppy Smith’ gives her a run for her yen.
She starts off very polished, bejeweled, hair in tight curls in an upsweep ‘do. She looks at the casino with school girl fascination:
“The other places are like kindergarten compared to this. It smells so incredibly evil. I didn’t think such a place existed except in my own imagination. Has a ghastly familiarity like a half- remembered dream. Anything could happen here. Any moment.”
When all the men’s attention turns to her, I love the way von Sternberg quickly dollies into a c.u. of her eyes as the camera quickly tries to focus. She has a glacial beauty that’s heart~stopping. ( Let me cut in here with a quick memory of Tierney in “The Pleasure Seekers” with 60’s blonde, brunette and red-haired sex kittens: Carol Lynley, Pamela Tiffin and Ann-Margret. Their beauty combined could not touch Gene Tierney’s in the 1940’s). But I digress…back on the roller coaster–
As Dr. Omar makes his move on Poppy, I don’t think she’s ever felt the feelings he’s getting from her. She’s mesmerized, doesn’t take her eyes off of him. Her eyes are half-closed. ( Tierney’s eyes are deadly ). She’s enticed to gamble and she wins. She says those fateful last words uttered by all addicts:
“There’s one thing you should know about me. I can stop whenever I want.”
So of course, she starts to lose.
And in her losing, she gets careless, argumentative (you know, the veritable angry drunks). But she still carries this air of entitlement even as her losses mount. She even challenges Mother Gin Sling (a big mistake!):
POPPY: “You’re not going to ask for credentials too?”
MOTHER: “You asked for 50,000.”
POPPY: “And why not? I might’ve asked for more.”
MOTHER: “If your credit is good, any sum you wish is at your disposal.”
POPPY: “My credit is at least as good as yours.”
Oh Poppy…Poopy…Poppy. Wazzup with the attitude, yo? How much of this youthful hubris is racist leanings???
Her luck changes ~ for the worse ~ her behavior changes ~ for the worse ~ and Omar keeps egging her on to continue.
When we see Poppy again, she wears her hair loose. She’s losing heavily and gets jealous to boot when she sees Dixie and Omar. Jealousy and losing are not a good combination:
POPPY: “You’re not going to make me jealous, are you?”
OMAR: “Don’t make a scene. How can you be jealous of a little chorus girl who doesn’t own the clothes on her back.”
POPPY: “Don’t play with me. I won’t stand for it! Been watching you both for an hour.”
OMAR: “That’s why you lose. Why don’t you watch the game.”
Her “don’t play with me” line sounds very today, very contemporary and rings very true to me. She starts to cause a scene in the casino and Mother Gin Sling has to take her in hand:
“Behave yourself Poppy. You’re in China and you’re white. It’s not good for us to see you. You’ll bring discredit to your race if you continue.”
D’ya think Poppy cares?
“Don’t preach to me. And let my race take care of itself!!”
There’s the dialogue I quoted earlier, in context. Yikes! She’s losing all comportment. Omar sticks with her…but just barely. You can see he’s tired of her rants and raves and dwindling finances. She bores him. When Poppy tries to get Omar to see him, he won’t let her in his apartment. ( He’s just not that into you ). She cries and screams and acts and like she’s hurt her leg. I’ve never seen Tierney let loose with such abandon. ( If you have, please… cite the movie for me ). And von Sternberg lets that scene play out (maybe just a little too long–but I guess directors took their time back then). As I said before, when she feigns her leg injury in the staircase she really looks like ice skater Nancy Kerrigan to me. When she gets inside his apartment she alternately yells / screams / begs / pleads for Omar’s sexual forgiveness. She is a junkie…strung out on gambling and the good doctor Omar.
We she returns to the movie, she’s a dutiful daughter. She’s pulled herself together to see her father. But she’s not ready to give up her experiences here in Shanghai. Not by a long shot. When Poppy is presented at the dinner party. She is disheveled, her hair is wild. I love the pale lipstick she wears (this also gives her a very contemporary look ). She is a hot mess! And she is ravishing. She does seem to have some sense of self-awareness about her situation when she says:
“I owe Lady Shylock over there twenty thousand English pounds. And I haven’t much to show for it except that dressed up clown.”
I wouldn’t say she is embarrassed but more disgusted; disgusted with Omar and disgusted with herself. Look at the false bravado and brave front she tries to put out there as she makes Omar recite yet another poem, trying to hold her head up high ~ “The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on…” ~ but she is a mess!
“This is the poet laureate of Shanghai. Some day I’m going to kill him!!”
Her degradation is gloriously complete.
She’s disgusted and contemptuous. She’s petulant and tantrum-y. Von Sternberg coaxes a performance of complete abandon from Tierney. How did he know she could do it, so young and early in her career…or did he just pick her for her beauty? I haven’t seen all of Gene Tierney’s movies, but I’m certain in “The Shanghai Gesture” she’s all the things that I’ll never see her be again in her career.
At the risk of spoiling the movie I shall end here. But I would like to give a couple of final shout~outs as even von Sternberg would approve:
1 ~ The great Albert Basserman. ( He’s only slightly younger than C. Aubrey Smith! ) Von Sternberg’s close~ups of Basserman’s wizened face were beautiful. And even when he didn’t speak, his expressions spoke volumes. Look at his face during Lady Blessington’s “faint.”
2 ~ Roland Lui, who played Kim Chee is absolutely gorgeous; if this was a different time, he could surely play cute boys-next-door. This is my hubba hubba moment and von Sternberg gives him a nice close-up too. He was in “The Letter” (1940) and runs to tell Herbert Marshall “Mr. Hammond is DEAD!”
3 ~ To those lovely little handmaidens that helped out at the dinner party. See them standing behind the lead actors. They floated in and out like little fairies and tried to keep a straight face when Lady Blessington is told (in no uncertain terms) to ”SIT DOWN!” and does a slight faint. Watch the girls in the background. They are cracking up and they cracks me up.
4 ~ Mother Gin Sling has a confidante who I just love. I’m sorry I don’t know the actor’s name but he’s about as Asian as I am. He talks of his Wives Trouble ( Wives as in more than one wife ) and he and Gin Sling have a relationship that’s based on mutual respect. He’s like her Consigliere. And he has great reactions.
If you haven’t seen “THE SHANGHAI GESTURE” I really urge you to find this one. I don’t know where you think this might fit in in Von Sternberg’s canon of work…but you’ll never see another roller coaster ride like this one.
I hosted a blogathon which includes a variety of topics from bloggers you’re gonna wanna read. Set aside some time to check them out here:
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