Debutante To Derelict: The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

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Reading Steve Kronenberg’s excellent “Handle With Care – The Ordeals Of Gene Tierney” in the new Noir City issue number 27 was bound to send me flipping through DVD’s for a Tierney film. You’d just assume I’d go for Laura. And while not a noir, as it happens, I’m quite partial to The Ghost And Mrs. Muir. (Call me a softie.) But Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture offered a Tierney performance which, while not necessarily echoing the specifics of the actress’ troubled life, certainly portrays a woman destined for (or determined to find) her share of troubles.

This 1941 proto-noir is one truly weird movie. Based on John Colton’s risqué 1920’s Broadway play of the same name, the story’s controversial themes had to be severely diluted to make it onscreen. In fact, Hollywood studios and producers already tried to make a film version of the play many times, and the Breen Office censors demanded more than 30 revisions before the script was acceptable.

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Phyllis Brooks & Victor Mature Lobby Card

Despite hefty bribes to the authorities, “Dragon Lady” Gin Sling’s (Ona Munson) casino is being forced to shut down and relocate to Shanghai’s seedy Chinese sector by a wealthy English developer (Walter Huston) with grand designs on her location. While Victor Mature’s (looking ridiculous in a fez) ‘Doctor’ Omar and down-on-her-luck American showgirl Dixie Pomeroy (Phyllis Brooks) try to cook up something to thwart the developer’s plans before the impending Chinese New Year deadline, Gin Sling’s joint is visited by stunning and refined Victoria Charteris (Gene Tierney), fresh from a European boarding school but currently going by ‘Poppy Smith’, eager for thrills and swiftly seduced by liquor and gambling. It doesn’t take long for her to turn into a lush, wind up in debt to Gin Sling, and then fall in love with charlatan ‘Doctor’ Omar (despite the fez). Things get a little soap-opera-ish then, revealing that Gin Sling once had a fling with the wealthy Brit who’s destroying her casino. Abandoned and destitute, she was forced to leave their baby behind…who grew up to be none other than Victoria Charteris/Poppy Smith/Gene Tierney. If all of these revelations aren’t bad enough, particularly since the lovely Victoria has turned into the deep-in-debt drunk Poppy now, things can always get worse, climaxing when Gin Sling ends up shooting Tierney, her own daughter.

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All of this might make a bit more sense (or not) if censors allowed the play’s real premise to be depicted: Gin Sling didn’t run a casino but a brothel/opium den. ‘Poppy’ didn’t get a taste for the booze and the dice, but became a drug addict, helped along by the fellow she fell for. ‘Poppy’. Get it?

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The Shanghai Gesture is far from a classic, not quite a ‘noir’ or even a crime melodrama, and wasn’t particularly successful with audiences or critics. Further, it’s packed full of utterly squirm-worthy ethnic stereotyping, like so many films of its era were.  Still, it’s worth it just to watch Gene Tierney go from refined to bar-room bad girl to drunken lush, her transition taking place in some decidedly uncensored and surreally decadent surroundings. The shift in delivery, body language and appearance is striking. Flanked by Phyllis Brooks and Ona Munson, the three women deliver the goods in a sometimes bizarre and sometimes pedestrian film. Sure, I’ll probably watch Tierney as Laura Hunt and Lucy Muir. I mean, how can you not if you’ve got Gene Tierney on your mind? But I’m glad I started here.

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