In the city of Shanghai, a ruthless casino boss, Mother Gin Sling (Ona Munson, Gone with the Wind), sets out to destroy a wealthy Englishman (Walter Huston, Dodsworth) whom she believes is trying to close down her establishment.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Anything could happen here, any moment.”
The Shanghai Gesture is the kind of ridiculously baroque spectacle that can only be made in Hollywood. I don’t think words alone can describe the movie. It’s almost surreal in its mind-boggling awfulness. The script is overly-dramatic, and there isn’t a trace of reality in the actors’ work, yet I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.
The Shanghai Gesture is based on the controversial 1925 stage play of the same name by American playwright John Colton. For a while, the property was deemed unfilmable. Every major Hollywood studio took a crack at it, but no one could figure out a way to adapt such a depraved story into a script that would be approved by the censors.
Austrian producer Arnold Pressburger (Hangmen Also Die!) acquired the rights to Colton’s play, and asked screenwriters Jules Furthman (original Nightmare Alley) and Geza Herczeg to clean it up. Once the script was ready, Pressburger hired Master of Rococo cinema, Josef von Sternberg (Morocco and Shanghai Express), to direct the film. It’s impossible to name everything that’s wrong with this movie. Suffice to say that the endless flaws create something that’s deliciously bad.
The gathering of mismatched actors contributes to the madness. Ona Munson is unrecognizable under heavy make-up as the Asian super-villain Mother Gin Sling (originally called Mother Goddam). By the way, Munson doesn’t really look Asian, she looks extraterrestrial! She’s like a cross between Fu Manchu and Medusa.
Gene Tierney (Laura) plays a spoiled socialite (like Lucy Ewing with a hangover) who goes off the deep end in her growing addiction to gambling. I found Victor Mature’s (Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah) Omar Sharif-esque performance rather amusing. However, Walter Huston sticks out like a sore thumb as Tierney’s father. It’s odd to see such a grounded actor like Huston amid the film’s vulgar excesses.
Shockingly, Oscar-nominated character actress and legendary acting teacher Maria Ouspenskaya (Love Affair and The Wolfman) has a worthless bit role as Munson’s faithful mute servant — apparently, preview audiences laughed at her thick Russian accent (she plays an Asian), so they eliminated all her speaking scenes. The cast also includes German actor Albert Bassermann (Foreign Correspondent), Mike Mazurki (Murder, My Sweet) and Eric Blore (The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat) as a bookkeeper.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Film critic Pauline Kael called The Shanghai Gesture “hilariously, awesomely terrible” and “a gorgeous travesty.” Entertainment Weekly described the film as “a passionate, demented, richly entertaining piece of nonsense.” I’m sure you get the point. It’s definitely a one-of-a-kind movie. I strongly recommend the film to fans of camp. The movie is available on YouTube. B&W, 105 minutes, Not Rated.