Our story has nothing to do with the present.
There is this card, at the very beginning of Joseph von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture – a simple card, that shifts the action of this unusual pulpish noir shot in 1941 from the real world to a parallel dimension.
The card was placed there upon request by the censors – that were afraid the movie could have some bad effects on the morale of the men fighting in the Pacific.
It was 1941.
That card is one – but only one – of the many elements that make it one of the films I like to re-watch.
It’s stylish, cruel, as dark and as they come, and wildly exotic.
According to the legend, von Sternberg was ill at the time of the shooting, and he directed part of the movie from a litter. He had accepted to do the shot because this was 1941, and he needed the cash to pay a quick getaway for a number of relatives still living in Germany.
The story is based on a stage drama – and it’s tough stuff. The action is set in a whorehouse in Shanghai, where a madam called Mother Goddam extracts a cruel revenge on a British diplomat, turning the man’s daughter into a heroin addict willing to sell herself for a fix.
As I said, tough stuff.
The Hays Commission started pestering von Sternberg from day one – requesting in total thirty cuts and rewrites (practically one every three minutes of film). But Joseph von Sternberg was no hack – he knew that censorship is an opportunity, and by following the requests of the Hays Commission, crafted a little jewel.
The action was moved from a brothel to a casino, making the object of the madam revenge addicted to gambling. But the descent of Poppy Smith (nomen omen) into the depth of gambling and debt is just the most obvious sign of a number of addictions to which she progressively gives in with gusto. The increasingly debauched character played by a gorgeous Gene Tierney is enthralled and seduced by Dr Omar (Victor Mature – playing the only character in movie history to openly admit he comes from Gomorrah), who becomes her lover and her pusher.
Sidestepping the problem of setting his story in a cat-house, von Sternberg added therefore two capital sins (greed and lust) to addiction, with a side serving of nymphomania.
The original house of hill repute was redesigned as a cross between Hell and a circus, with equal debts to Dante Alighieri and the Great World, an “entertainment center” in Shanghai that Sternberg had visited while shooting Shanghai Express.
Similarly, the squalid character of Mother Goddam metamorphosed into Mother Gin Sling, a stylish, surreal dragon lady played by Ona Munson (herself the object of much scandal, and a suicide at the age of forty) with a mix of cruelty and sexiness that must have sent blue shivers down the walls of the Hays Office.
She’s more alien and scary than Ming the Merciless, and looks like a sexy, twisted Galadriel from a parallel universe.
Shanghai is rebuilt in the studio (except for the festival scene, that was shot in the streets of Chinatown, Los Angeles), and appears in the opening shots like the direct ancestor of the city from Blade Runner, filled with strange crowds, shrouded in mist and rain.
By all means, a fantasy city, a place from an other time.
The end result is a triumph of wickedness, a politically incorrect movie in which all Orientals are corrupted, all the Westerners are quite happy to embrace corruption; a story filled with sex and drugs (non shown on screen), with a hint of incest and a number of double-entendres that are mostly lost to today’s audiences.
The drama takes a turn for the worst with the final confrontation between the leads (Poppy’s father – the object of Gin Sling’s revenge – is played by Walter Houston), and the story ends in tragedy.
Ironically, only an “easy girl” (Dixie Pomeroy, played by Phyllis Brooks) gets out of the whole thing with her life and dignity intact – but she’s made no mystery throughout the movie that she had very little to lose in the first place.
This is one of the building blocks of that Shanghai Illusion we discussed a few days back.
It’s a fantasy, as dark and evil as possible.
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