Sunday, 24 February 2013

Reflections on Shanghai Gesture (1941)

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Gene Tierney and Ona Munson in Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Gesture (1941)

(Note: I wrote the review below for the DVD of Shanghai Gesture for the Nude magazine website several years ago now. I thought I'd dust it off, tweak it a bit and revive it here. The film is truly berserk, haunting and highly recommended -- especially with a stiff drink in your hand)

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Ona Munson and Maria Ouspenskaya in Shanghai Gesture (1941)

The seven films Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich made together are like intoxicating  fleurs du mal: erotic, dark, witty, sublime, and modern. Together they honed Dietrich's complex, sultry and feline persona and brought a whiff of genuine Weimar decadence to mainstream Hollywood. After their personal and professional relationship imploded with The Devil is a Woman in 1935 Dietrich went on to work with major directors like Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock and tour her acclaimed one-woman cabaret show around the world well into her 70s. For von Sternberg - who'd antagonised a lot of people in his 1930s heyday with his volatile tyrannical temperament - his post-Dietrich career was one long, humiliating decline.

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Almost ridiculously beautiful colour portrait of Gene Tierney on the set of Shanghai Gesture

1941's Shanghai Gesture represents one of von Sternberg's last gasps before losing creative autonomy. (During the filming of 1952's Macao , he'd be sacked midway through production and replaced by Nicholas Ray). A torrid and baroque study in vengeance and corruption, the film sees Von Sternberg re-visiting the locale of Shanghai Express, his 1932 triumph with Dietrich. Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), a rich white industrialist with a murky past, is seeking to gentrify Shanghai (he calls it "the cesspool of the Far East"). When gorgon-like dragon lady Mother Gin Sling (Ona Munson) learns he intends to close her gambling den she starts plotting her revenge. Meanwhile, slumming rich girl Poppy (the exquisite Gene Tierney) becomes ensnared by the toxic allure of the casino ("It smells so incredibly evil ..."), addicted both to gambling and the heavy-lidded charms of Dr Omar (a torpid Victor Mature in a burnoose and fez).

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Gene Tierney, Victor Mature and Phyllis Brooks. It has to be said, Mature is insanely sexy as Dr Omar. No man ever looked better in a fez

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Kiss me, you fool. Who could resist?

Von Sternberg was Hollywood's most seductive visual stylist. Here he evokes a sensual and depraved Shanghai of the imagination, an underworld of opium-scented exotica. Mother Gin Sling's vice palace is a glittering Art Deco inner circle of hell, where the beautiful and the damned drink cocktails of brandy and sulphur and gamble away their souls. A Chinese New Year parade is depicted as a macabre carnival; Mother Gin Sling's climactic New Year's Eve party culminates with the surreal sight of terrified female "white slaves" being hoisted skyward in cages.

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This scene is genuinely surreal and will have you rubbing your eyes in amazement

The overripe, purple dialogue occasionally threatens to tip the film into kitsch (Dr Omar calls Poppy "my plucked bird of paradise"; Mother Gin Sling snaps at someone, "Stop behaving like a disabled flamingo!"). But even in a scratchy, muffled DVD transfer, Shanghai Gesture is a hypnotic, shimmering spectacle and its treatment of miscegenation and colonialism is way ahead of its time. And as portrayed by Munson (best-remembered as bordello madam Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind ) with a purring voice, serene mask-like face and Medusa hairstyle, Mother Gin Sling is a mesmerising villainess.

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Ona Munson: compelling and unforgettable as Mother Gin Sling in a role that feels like it could have been intended for Marlene Dietrich (or Anna May Wong). The whole persona of Mother Gin Sling also feels informed by Gale Sondergaard in The Letter (1940) from the year before.

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Gale Sondergaard as the inscrutable and sinister Mrs Hammond in The Letter (1940)

Munson obviously made an impression as the brassy but warm-hearted Belle in Gone with the Wind (interesting bit of trivia: the part of Belle was supposedly offered to both Mae West and Tallulah Bankhead beforehand), but in the larger role of Mother Gin Sling she truly seizes the moment. Munson’s life and career were both disappointing and ended in tragedy (she committed suicide at the age of 51 in 1955). This is the performance to remember Ona Munson for. Late in the film, Munson has an incredible monologue in which she divulges how she came to be Mother Gin Sling (“... they sewed pebbles into the soles of my feet so I couldn’t escape ...”). It’s an acting tour de force, which can be favourably compared to Elizabeth Taylor’s simiarily lurid and climactic monologue in Suddenly Last Summer.

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The sardonic and evil Mother Gin Sling smiles as Poppy comes unglued

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Watching Shanghai Gesture at home, while Lydia Lunch glares from above (as you can see, both my TV and CD player are 1990s relics).

4 comments:

  1. Such a wild movie. It's all about Gene Tierney's descent into depravity through drugs. But because of the production code no drugs could be shown -- so Gene Tierney keeps asking for cigarettes. It's the ultimate move about cigarettes.

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  2. How serendipitous - Shanghai Gesture is on Film4 at 11am tomorrow in the UK. Thank you for the tip!

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  3. David Ehrenstein: Yes! The word "opium" is mentioned just once in passing -- and yet Poppy's whole decline only makes sense in terms of opium addiction. Instead, it's like she's drugged on all-purpose "vice" and sex. Gene Tierney was never sexier than looking all debauched with a cigarette dangling bad girl-style from her lips. I actually rate Tierney highly as a fine, sensitive actress but she's raw and inexperienced in this early film and memorably terrible! I love her delivery of the line, "You're no more my mother than a toad!"

    GaryG: Tell me your verdict! Shanghai Gesture is trippy and a real experience. You will NEVER forget it.

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  4. Well, what a wild weird film. There was much to enjoy - Ona Munsons visual persona stood out for me, as did the entire decadent look and feel of the flick. Mother Gin Sling was definitely "of" the Shangai depicted. I thought the atmosphere of the city was reminiscent of "Casablanca" - both places in flux where everyone and everything came and went. I loved the dialogue too, I must watch again and memorise some choice examples to re-use! And having just watched Skyfall the weekend before it was interesting to see another depiction of a Shanghai casino, seven decades apart. All in all, *definitely* a trip and one to keep on the DVR to surprise friends (and myself, again) with. Thanks again for the timely tip-off!

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