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The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

Approved | | Crime, Drama, Film-Noir | 15 January 1942 (USA)
In Shanghai, dragon-lady 'Mother' Gin Sling operates a gambling house for wealthy patrons but she clashes with influential land developer Sir Guy Charteris who wants to put her out-of-business.


Josef von Sternberg (adaptation), Geza Herczeg (collaborator for adaptation) | 2 more credits »
Nominated for 2 Oscars. See more awards »




Cast overview, first billed only:
Gene Tierney ... Poppy
Walter Huston ... Sir Guy Charteris
Victor Mature ... Doctor Omar
Ona Munson ... 'Mother' Gin Sling
Phyllis Brooks ... The Chorus Girl
Albert Bassermann ... The Commissioner
Maria Ouspenskaya ... The Amah
Eric Blore ... The Bookkeeper
Ivan Lebedeff ... The Gambler
Mike Mazurki ... The Coolie
Clyde Fillmore ... The Comprador
Grayce Hampton ... The Social Leader
Rex Evans Rex Evans ... The Counselor
Mikhail Rasumny ... The Appraiser (as Mikhail Rasumni)
Michael Dalmatoff Michael Dalmatoff ... The Bartender (as Michael Delmatoff)


A young woman, Poppy, out for excitement in Shanghai, enters a gambling house owned by "Mother" Gin Sling, a dragon-lady who worked herself up from poverty to buy the casino. Sir Guy Charteris, wealthy entrepreneur, has purchased a large area of Shanghai, forcing Gin Sling to vacate by the coming Chinese New Year. Under orders from Gin Sling, who has found out Poppy is Charteris' daughter, the smarmy Doctor Omar leads Poppy deeper and deeper into an addiction to gambling and alcohol. Gin Sling, realizing that Charteris was her long-ago husband who she thinks abandoned her, plans her revenge by inviting Charteris to a Chinese New Year dinner party to expose his past indiscretions. Charteris, however, has a suprise of his own to spring on Gin Sling. Written by Doug Sederberg <vornoff@sonic.net>

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis


People Live in Shanghai for Many Reasons... Most of Them Bad! See more »


Approved | See all certifications »

Did You Know?


The opening credits include an acknowledgment for the "large cast of 'HOLLYWOOD EXTRAS' who without expecting credit or mention stand ready day and night to do their best--and who at their best are more than good enough to deserve mention." The MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library reveals the following information about the production: Beginning in Mar 1926, various studios expressed interest in producing a film based on John Colton's play, The Shanghai Gesture . Paramount made the first inquiries in 1926, United Artists in 1929, Universal in 1929, Columbia and Tiffany in 1930, and RKO, Mascot Productions and Warner Bros. in 1932. In 1929, Universal, which was searching for a "red-hot smash" to improve profits for the studio, pursued a long course of correspondence with the MPAA about the Colton play. In an Oct 1929 memo to Universal, Colonel Jason S. Joy, then director of the MPAA, noted that "the play deals with a bawdy house which at times is unusually attractive and at other times wretchedly sordid. Into this background is woven miscegenation, illegitimacy, white slavery, murder and an opportunity to incur the ill-will of other countries. If the story were re-written so as to avoid all of these difficulties, as it would have to be, it is my honest opinion that it would be...emasculated." Although Colton wrote numerous drafts and changed the setting from a "bawdy house" to a "gambling joint" and changed the title to Mother Satan , among other alterations, the screen story was repeatedly rejected. In 1932, Darryl F. Zanuck, on behalf of Warner Bros., submitted a treatment of the Colton play which included similar changes: The principal character's name was changed from "Mother Goddam" to "Mother Satan"; she was sold into labor, not prostitution; she was married and the marriage was annulled, with the husband believing that he had arranged alimony; her daughter was "not a dope fiend and a nymphomaniac"; and "the story end[ed] on a note of tragic realization that revenge is futile and wrong." The treatment was rejected, however. In the late 1930s, Jay Sanford Tush of International Film Exchange submitted a script called Madame Chi , which was loosely based on The Shanghai Gesture but did not state its source. That, too, was dropped. The PCA continued to dissuade all filmmakers from producing a film based on the play, and even banned the use of the play's title. In Jan 1941, Geza Herczeg's first treatment for Arnold Pressburger was rejected by the PCA "for the reason that it is a story of gross sexual irregularities with insufficient compensating moral values." The PCA suggested that all illicit relationships be altered, and that neither "Madame Poison Ivy" nor "Poppy" be shown as a "mistress," in addition to other changes. Pressburger continued to submit revised drafts of the script to the PCA, and in Apr 1941, the PCA warned that "first, and most important, it is absolutely essential that you remove from the finished picture anything that might be interpreted as inflammatory anti-Japanese propaganda." Finally, by Aug 1941, the producers and the PCA agreed on the necessary alterations; however, T. K. Chang, of the Consulate of the Republic of China in Los Angeles, voiced concerns that the film might adversely affect public opinion with its portrayal of its Chinese characters, as China was then in the midst of war with Japan. The producers met with Chang and the PCA, but few alterations were made. Early HR production charts and news items list James M. Cain as the author of the screenplay, but his contribution to the final film has not been confirmed. A Var news item reported that Loretta Young was sought for the role of "Mother Gin Sling," while a HR news item reported that Hans Eisler was to compose an original score. HR news items also noted that Luise Rainer was tested for the lead, as was J. Carrol Naish, who starred in the play. According to publicity material contained in the copyright records, the film's budget came to one million dollars. The Chinese New Year sequence was shot in Los Angeles' Chinatown community, according to press materials. This was Josef von Sternberg's first film in two years. It was nominated for Academy Awards in the following categories: Best Art Direction (black and white); and Best Music (Scoring Dramatic or Comedy Picture). From AFI Catlog. See more »


Poppy: The other places are like kindergardens compared with this. It smells so incredibly evil! I didn't think such a place existed except in my own imagination. It has a ghastly familiarity like a half-remembered dream. *Anything* could happen here... any moment...
See more »

Crazy Credits

Opening credits: "Years ago a speck was torn away from the mystery of China and became Shanghai. A distorted mirror of problems that beset the world today, it grew into a refuge for people who wished to live between the lines of laws and customs - - a modern Tower of Babel. Neither Chinese, European, British nor American it maintained itself for years in the ever increasing whirlpool of war. Its destiny, at present, is in the lap of the Gods - - as is the destiny of all cities. Our story has nothing to do with the present." See more »


Referenced in The Man with Bogart's Face (1980) See more »


I'm Always Chasing Rainbows
(1918) (uncredited)
Music by Harry Carroll
Lyrics by Joseph McCarthy
Played on piano by Rex Evans at Gin Sling's dinner party
See more »

User Reviews

Dreamy von Sternberg Morality Tale...
30 March 2004 | by cariartSee all my reviews

THE SHANGHAI GESTURE displays what was best and worst in Josef von Sternberg's 'German Expressionist' approach to film making, first seen by American audiences in his classic Marlene Dietrich productions of the 1930s. Each setting is decadent and mysterious, shot in soft focus, and wreathed in smoke; a sense of the absurd manifests itself in make-up, hairstyles, and costume; each character postures, incessantly, striking poses before delivering dialog; and there is always an undercurrent of sexual bondage, here manifested in the casual suggestions made by lazy, yet smoldering 'Dr. Omar' (Victor Mature), to the stranded showgirl, 'Dixie' (Phyllis Brooks), and the initially haughty, if naive 'Poppy/Victoria' (Gene Tierney), both of whom he easily 'bends' to his desires. In von Sternberg's world, there are seldom heroes, only survivors and predators.

Set in a fantasy version of the infamous Chinese port, GESTURE gathers a disparate group of international 'types', and sets them down in the multileveled center of inequity, a gambling parlor run by the legendary Chinese 'Mother' Gin Sling (Ona Munson). Ensnared by their debts, the mysterious woman 'owns' them, possessing an extraordinary degree of power.

Then the equally mysterious and powerful Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston) arrives in Shanghai, strong enough to control the local government, and with a goal of evicting 'Mother' Gin Sling, and tearing down her property. There is a shared 'skeleton' in both their closets, however, which she will reveal in the film's climactic 'Chinese New Year' dinner party...

While Munson could never 'pass' as Chinese, she does appear exotic and inscrutable, and is actually quite good, as is Huston, displaying a sensitivity masked in arrogant smugness. The true joy of the film, however, is watching the film's younger stars, early in their careers. Victor Mature, at 26, a year after his 'breakthrough' role in ONE MILLION B.C., poses more than acts in his role of an Arab gigolo, but clearly displays the sexuality that would make him a major heartthrob in the 40s; and Gene Tierney, not yet 21, occasionally overplays the 'fall' of her character, yet possesses the luminous beauty that would become her trademark.

Josef von Sternberg would only direct a handful of films after THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (receiving 'on screen' credit in even fewer), and this would be the last film he would have any kind of creative control over.

Faults and all, that alone would make THE SHANGHAI GESTURE worth viewing!

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English | French | Chinese

Release Date:

15 January 1942 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

The Shanghai Gesture See more »


Box Office


$1,000,000 (estimated)
See more on IMDbPro »

Company Credits

Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs


(copyright length) | (1981) (restored)

Sound Mix:

Mono (Western Electric Mirrophonic Recording)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
See full technical specs »

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