Like pre-code neo-Jacobean Tragedy's final, venomous wheeze, THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (1941) sinks its cobra fangs deep into the mongoose of censorship, self-abasement, and social taboo, to levels only Lon Chaney and Josef Von Sternberg dare go (Von Sternberg directed). Exploring an array of sins that the Breen Office demanded over 30 script revisions to obscure, that old devil Von Sternberg directed, and his old genius is still apparent! Somewhat! Oh for a Paramount budget, and Marlene Dietrich... instead there's her old 'sewing circle' pal, Ona Munsen (1) as a dragon lady named Mother Gin-Sling, owner and operator of a Shanghai casino structured like the rings of Dante's Inferno: as the wheel spins and a Russian threatens to kill himself there's also gigolo-ing, gold-digging, murder, drug addiction, alcohol, white slavery, elaborate revenge, smoking, and Josef Von Sternberg's Super Masochist Sublimation Power, though by then that power was reduced in wattage by changing fate. Based on a play by John Colton, GESTURE bid 1941 America pretend Shanghai wasn't locked in a death struggle with the Japanese. But could we?
We've always needed a slinky broad for these Pacific fantasias to sizzle properly: TERRY AND THE PIRATES would be nowhere without the Dragon Lady; RAIN would be a mere drizzle without Joan Crawford; KONGO (1932) would be pure misery without Lupe Velez; RED DUST (1932) lost without Jean Harlow; MANDALAY (1934) an empty shell without Kay Francis shimmering as Spot White; and Josef Von Sternberg's whole oeuvre would be just chiaroscuro exotica not for the enigmatic Marlene Dietrich, as THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (1941) proves, for as the Medusa-like Madame Gin-Sling--a role that would have been perfect for the then-older Dietrich--we have Ona Munsen, game enough to go up against Walter Huston as a tycoon buying up her block and planning to evict her (at least it has nothing to do with morals). With eyes calmly alight, Mother Gin-Sling encourages our confidence she has a plan, but it all depends on fate's fickle finger dialing her New Years dinner party into a third act denouement of MADAME BUTTERFLY self-immolation.
Munson is certainly commanding and regal, she seems to be having fun, but maybe that;s the trouble; she lacks Dietrich's Hawksian ability to infuse a single glance or wave with subversive innuendo. Instead of Dietrich's hypnotized cobra calm, Munsen has Gale Sondergaard's relaxed but stiff-upper-back regality, a cokehead's way of caging her formal dialogue with nasally enhanced sonorous jubilance, and headgear wild enough to play an 'Oriental' Medusa in Flo Ziegfeld's Mythology Revue. In the end, her headgear is what we remember. I mean that as no disrespect, Munson plays the part well, finds a good balance of camp and tragic aria, but there's a splash of Norma Desmond in there, and in the end she's a good actress, but the role doesn't need a good actress, it needs a star.
Munson split our mortal plane in '55 with a note that read "This is the only way I know to be free again...Please don't follow me." Classic Munson.
That said, slowness and pointless bits of business are the side effects of JVS's style--where every character is always moving towards or away from sex or death. Here, unlike many of his later films there's no feeling this was ever taken out of Von Sternberg's fussy hands by anxious producers (i.e. Howard Hughes with the leaden MACAO or the genuinely sexy JET PILOT).
As per JVS' usual tricks, there's very few daytime exterior shots and only one bit of Shnaghai stock footage letting us know that it might seem like midnight in the casino ("Never Closes" is their motto) but it's actually a weekday morning. I love the idea of coming out of what seems like only a few hours of nightclubbing at a busy casino, drinks and decadence in full flower, to find the sun is up and fresh-scrubbed bright-eyed people are going to work etc. It brings back a lot of memories.
That would seem to conclude the tour, so what of the antagonist? What of the... Huston?
|Chinese New Year, celebrating five thousand years of white slavery.|
RAIN (1931) finds Huston trying to do the reverse, to get a very young Joan Crawford out of tropical prostitution but you know how it is. Once she learns he's arranged to haul her back from the tropics to stand trial (these expat prostitutes are always on the lam after murdering either a violent john or pimp, but it was in self-defense!) she gets religion and he finds her, finally, attractive. Turns out he re-baptizes slutty Christians only so he can corrupt them anew.
As Marlene said in MOROCCO, "there's a Foreign Legion of women, too."
1. Miscegenation - It's important to remember that censors weren't just patriarchal prudes, they were racist: pre-code never meant no censorship, just less 'clear' rules of conduct: sex outside wedlock between two white people could occur if the woman was a divorcee or widow, or if it occurred in the land of savages--Africa, the tropics, Asia-- where they're more or less the only 'civilized' people around, and the jungle entrainment rules; usually the only thing remotely like a white authority figure is a drunk or junkie priest or doctor or ship's captain under some sort of fever or addiction, to further break down the veneer of modern civilization so that morality can't help but buckle. MGM was the worst, in films like RED DUST: being around 'the coolies' with only a small number of white people around, well the censors were so nervous about miscegenation breaking out that the white-on-white adultery and call girl-trysting was overlooked. A trick still used on racist parents by manipulative white high school girls to this day!
2. Maugham -Just advertising your film as about some hottie who thinks she killed a man taking it on the lam to the tropics where she hooks up with a junkie doctor means you want the public to associate it W. Somerset Maugham, the E.L. James of the 30s. Any film that wanted to have 'steam' just cherry picked plot points from his RAIN, SEVENTH VEIL, and THE LETTER.
2. Prohibition - Only America could be crazy enough to try to enforce such a law, so voyaging abroad where liquor didn't taste like Turpentine became double sexy. Also in the Post-WWI economy, the dollar went farther than most, so one could live the high life in Europe on a pittance, and the kingly life in the tropics. It was on everyone's mind. .
3. Exotica - There would still be flak from minority groups, but the Great War had forced us to get social; we came back interested in the art and cultures, keeping and even further weirding up the aesthetics, creating a picture of the 'other' as kinky, lurid, savage, totally class-conscious, but with exquisite and bizarre taste.
And the Brits always loved Egypt.