The Shanghai Gesture (1941) Poster

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Three Marlene .
dbdumonteil4 October 2004
Marlene Dietrich,even if she does not appear is present here :she's the marvelous Gene Tierney,the terrifying Ona Munson and the cynical Victor Mature."The Shanghai gesture" is one of my favorite Sternberg movies.I love the lines which warns us at the beginning of the film:it's not real Shanghai,it does not take place in the present.

"The Shanghai gesture" is an unclassifiable work: a film noir?a melodrama?Most likely an extravaganza ,an incredible exotic story which smells of the intoxicating perfume of poisonous flowers.The gigantic dive looks like a cobweb which the high priestess Mother Gin Sling spins ."Why not Mother Whiskey Soda? " Tierney asks.

All the characters are not what they seem ,they just pretend.Tierney has two names (one of them is the well-chosen "Poppy") and we only learn her real identity in the second half in a scene which seems completely "out of the movie".Mature is Doctor Omar ,doctor of nothing! Even the women in the cages and the sailors who buy them just pretend .Nothing is real.

Tierney's downfall is depicted in lavish detail:from the elegant woman of the beginning to the wreck Gin Sling invites to her Chinese New Year feast .Directing is absolutely breathtaking,when the camera circles around the dive where a cast of thousands -Sternberg even pays a tribute to the extras in the cast and credits,which is rare ,to my knowledge ,the first and last time it had been made-surrounds the heroine ,or in the final scenes ,when the shots merge with the firecrackers of the New Year.

"The Shanghai gesture" may be a guilty pleasure.But this kind of pleasure ,I ask for more!
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Dreamy von Sternberg Morality Tale...
Ben Burgraff (cariart)30 March 2004
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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Certainly among the most beautiful films ever
Tony Patti23 December 2004
One of the most beautiful films ever made. Von Sternberg had a strange and painterly way of composing a frame when he shot his films. In earlier films the scenes abounded in detail, and often had layers that would stretch back into the distance, or simply add complexity and a sense of the tumult of the living all around. In this film he seemed to change his focus to the glamorous portrait, and brought to life some of the most stunning shots of actors I have ever seen.

If you wish to see the breathtaking beauty of Gene Tierney at its height that this is the film to see it. She's so willful and spoiled, suggesting the nymphomaniac that nobody could suggest any other way thanks to the censorship. Everyone in the film seems to licking their lips in anticipation of some decadent delight that will be happening off screen. And time and time again Sternberg throws up another static, stagy, yet impossibly beautiful portrait of one of his stars.

The scent of opium and sex practically oozes from every frame.
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"The Shanghai Gesture" has an allure and a power that is hard to define.
ZoraSky8 October 2005
Fascinating. Once I stumbled onto this movie, I could not stop watching it. When it was over, I had find out the title since I had missed the beginning. So I spent my Saturday morning checking the Turner Classic Movie T.V. schedule and then searching the internet to read about "The Shanghai Gesture" and it's director and actors/actresses.

One of my first questions: Who is that playing Mother Gin Sling? I know it is not Marlene Dietrich, but who? Answer: actress Ona Munson aka "Belle Watling" from "Gone With The Wind." I NEVER would have guessed. All sorts of familiar faces showed up in familiar and not so familiar roles. Like the croupier from "Casablanca," presiding over a much more sinister roulette table.

The visuals get you first. Images of a well of depravity leading to ruin and despair, yet glamorous all the way.

I liked the characterizations too. Walter Houston was excellent and believable as the "straight" businessman. Gene Tierney did an amazing transformation from decisive, strong, and elegant socialite to needy, pathetically transparent, and out of control young woman. Ona Munson played an impressive "dragon lady." Victor Mature's gigolo was appropriately jaded and manipulative.

It is a hypnotic and sensuous morality tale about the lure of sex, gambling, drugs, alcohol, and money and the danger of addiction to any of these to one's inner spirit. It also illustrates the high price of revenge, especially misplaced revenge.

A respectable film from the man who directed "The Blue Angel."

This film has an allure and a power that is hard to define. "The Shanghai Gesture" is not perfect, but it seizes hold of your attention and makes one think.
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In my top 15
lucy-1927 November 2003
Don't believe anyone who tells you this movie is bad - it is wonderful. The casino set with its art deco sculptures is a work of art and the music is superb. The play the script is based on is by John P. Marquand, who wrote the Mr. Moto books. I think in the original Poppy becomes addicted to drugs as well as to Dr. Omar. Gene Tierney is great as the girl who slides into degeneracy. All the ensemble cast are wonderful: the earthy chorus girl, the sinister old Chinese man who says he admires white women for their "intelligence and sense of humour" as his hands outline a voluptuous figure in the air. Mike Mazurski as a thug who acts as an ever-present Fate figure haunting Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston). The elderly notable who regrets so politely that he must close Mother Gin Sling's operation down. Mother G herself with her bitter, drawling voice that has foresuffered all. See it if you can! This film is art! (Oh, I forgot the smiling character who plays Chopin in the casino/brothel.)
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cairnsdavid15 November 2002
All Von Sternberg films deserve to be seen on the big screen for their visual beauty, but this one also benefits from videoviewing - you can wind it back at those moments when you HAVE to ask, "Did I just see/hear that???" Gene Tierney would evolve into a fine actress, but she's terrible here -think Elizabeth Berkeley in SHOWGIRLS - only MUCH better looking, so we forgive her. Walter Huston is magnificent as always. Oona Munson seizes her role between her teeth and relishes every bite. "The soles of my feet cut open and pebbles sown into them to stop me running away..." YUCK! The loopy plot makes imperfect sense due to many many cuts by the censors, and maybe Maria Ouspenskaya had more to do in some previous, even madder version of the film, but it's an oneiric, mind-reeling romp of staggering decadence and grandeur. One story has Little Jo directing from atop a crane, from which he would toss silver dollars to actors who pleased him, while he himself claims he directed it lying flat on his back. Neither would surprise me, seeing the result.
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Seductively decadent!
stephen-35726 January 2005
Seductively decadent! "It smells so incredibly evil" says the beautiful protagonist, intoxicated by the very repugnance of the place,"I didn't think a place like this existed except in my imagination." The place is called Mother Ginsling's Casino which exists in the volatile morally ambiguous no-man's land that was Shanghai during the 1940's. Controlled by the "most cold blooded dragon you'll ever meet", Madame Ginsling, a scholar of human folly and master manipulator of their emotions, the Casino is threatened with closure by a powerful English business man, ironically not for morality but because she's an impediment to his expanding empire. But like any cunning predator, Ginsling searches for Sir Guy Charteris's Achilles heel and finds it in his beautiful, but not-so-innocently curious daughter Poppy Smith, who's curiosity with Ginsling's establishment quickly turns into an addiction. In about 20 minutes time, director Josef Von Sternberg will turn this heart-stopping beautiful and sophisticated girl into a babbling tramp, and considering that Poppy is played by Gene Tierney at her prime, this is a remarkable achievement! SHANGHAI GESTURE illustrates how skillful understatement in a master's hand can be scorchingly sensual and overtly decadent without even raising an eyebrow of the modern censor. Powerful performances by Tierney, Walter Houston, and Ona Munson. A masterpiece!
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Xanadu-29 October 2001
It was more than I had hoped for. Hollywood forties film noir glamour...yet everyone is rotten to the core and no one wins. Great performances from a time when stars could act and made the most of a script...and what script! They sure don´t make them like that anymore. Such ideas...the unusual but people like them have probably existed...

Lovely Gene Tierney transcending her enchanting beauty showing that looks aren´t enough. Victor Mature also playing someone of great charm and little character. I like how the beautiful leads aren´t the heroes. No one is! Ona Munson - so amazing and otherwordly! Where are the strong character parts for women like that today??

The sumptuous sets, everything steeped in mystery. What an atmosphere von Sternberg created...! I loved it! I want so see more films like this and I could see it again. Is it available on video?

Thank you Hollywood!
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A beautiful, fascinating melodramatic story
pzanardo3 July 2000
"The Shanghai Gesture" shows how attractive can be a melodramatic story when treated by an artist as Josef von Sternberg. The movie is in the style of German Expressionism; luckily enough, it avoids the slowness and bleak heaviness which affect many movies of that artistic movement, probably since it was filmed in Hollywood instead of Berlin. We are introduced in a world of desperate corruption; every sense of honesty or nobility is dead. It is typical that Mother Gin Sling's casino, the den of every meanness, is intended to be closed not for moral but for business reasons. There is a clever mixture of tragedy and grotesque. Ona Munson is extraordinary as Mother Gin Sling: she apparently knows shameful secrets of the whole cosmopolitan mob which throngs her casino; she has everyone into her claws. Her make-up and Chinese robes are magnificent; her fixed, cruel smile is really scaring. Victor Mature is great in the role of the indifferent, over-lazy Dr. Omar. He is probably black-mailed by Mother Gin Sling, like any other character in the movie; yet he seems to do evil just as an entertaining game, just to win his bore, not by coercion. Gene Tierney is Poppy, the spoiled, rich, scornful girl, just too apt to sink in a pit of corruption, with no possible coming back. A due remark: we are always so stunned by Gene's incredible beauty, that we find it difficult to realize her great talent. Here, at the age of twenty-one, she gives a fully mature performance. Also Walter Huston and all the supporting actors make beautiful jobs. Actually, the acting is always on the verge of grotesque: this is clearly an artistic choice by von Sternberg. If we can find a fault in "The Shanghai Gesture", is that the finale is a bit abrupt. Nonetheless it is a great film, deservedly a cult-movie in the history of cinema.
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Much better than some reviewers would have you think.
Most of those movie review reference books you see floating around in paperback call this film campy idiocy. It's campy only in the sense that it was made at a time when a certain degree of heavy-handedness and melodrama was the norm in films. It's certainly not idiotic. It is a story of perceived betrayal and self-degradation. The play it was based on was considered quite thought provoking and socially daring. The film was somewhat cleaned up but still addressed the main issues. The characterizations are quite involving, especially Mature's.
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A tragic story with quite the entertaining group of characters
bensonmum230 April 2006
Warning: Spoilers
'Mother' Gin Sling (Ona Munson) runs a very successful gambling house in Shanghai. Through her doors pass a wide variety of individuals from every exotic corner of the globe. One such individual is a spoiled young woman who goes by the name of "Smith" (Gene Tierney) with a penchant for gambling and drink. It's not long before "Smith" is up to her eyeballs in IOUs and well on her way to becoming a complete lush. Coinciding with these events, a wealthy man named Sir Charteris (Walter Huston) arrives in Shanghai. Part of his business deal involves the land that 'Mother' Gin Sling's establishment sits on. 'Mother' Gin Sling believes she may have previously met Sir Charteris, but under a different name and in far different circumstances. To save her business, 'Mother' Gin Sling puts two and two together to connect "Smith" with Sir Charteris and lets the chips fall where they may.

Many of the people who care about and enjoy older films like The Shanghai Gesture will no doubt pick-up the film because of Gene Tierney – the biggest "star" in the cast. But they'll quickly discover that The Shanghai Gesture is so much more than Tierney. The movie features a wonderful ensemble cast playing a group of highly eccentric characters. To begin with, there's Ona Munson as 'Mother' Gin Sling. Maybe it's the costuming and maybe it's the attitude, but I bought her performance. Next, there's Victor Mature as Dr. Omar the Arab gigolo. He's the kind of fellow best described as slimy. Two of my favorite characters in The Shanghai Gesture are Eric Blore as Ceasar the English bookkeeper to 'Mother' Gin Sling and Clyde Filmore as 'Mother' Gin Sling's flunky, Percival Montgomery Howe. Mix in an American showgirl, a Russian barkeeper, a rickshaw driver of questionable origin, and about a half-dozen others and you've got quite an eclectic and entertaining group of actors and characters.

As much fun as the people in the film are, at its core, The Shanghai Gesture is a terribly tragic and sad story. Most of the people who come to 'Mother' Gin Sling's place do so because they have to, not because they want to. Whether it's "Smith" looking for her next gambling fix or those who do her bidding like Dixe the American showgirl, they come because 'Mother' Gin Sling holds something over their heads. Nobody seems to really want to be there. Deep down, most of these people seem miserable. The ending of The Shanghai Gesture takes the bleakness from just beneath the surface and thrusts it into the light of day. I won't give it away, but I will say that there are no winners in The Shanghai Gesture. Everyone comes out a loser.

Finally, one of the most impressive aspects of The Shanghai Gesture is the set design. Instead of a seedy, back-alley sort of gambling joint, 'Mother' Gin Sling's place is like an Art Deco shrine. I'm continually amazed at the care and money that went into these sets found in films from the 30s and 40s. Today, much of it would be done with computer effects. So when I see something like the four-story, circular gambling house in The Shanghai Gesture, I can't help be amazed.
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You May Wince, But You Will Watch
LomzaLady11 October 2005
Warning: Spoilers
An amazing movie. The first time I saw it, I couldn't believe what I was watching -- it's so old-fashioned, so racist, so antifeminist, so melodramatic, and yet, it's wonderfully gripping. Here is a story full of clichés about the East, and about the decadence of Shanghai in particular. Part of the fun of watching this film is trying to guess what was left out. There was a Broadway version of Shanghai Gesture in the 1920s, and the protagonist's name in the play, "Mother Goddamn," is so wonderfully evocative of her character. The film's "Mother Gin Sling" doesn't tell her backstory in the same way.

It's obvious that Victor Mature's character is giving Gene Tierney's character more than sex and booze. He is one of those doctors who is an easy source of drugs to the idle rich. Although I think Mature is somewhat miscast as the insidious Persian physician (too robust; too American), he does well, and those supercilious, smoldering looks he gives are entirely appropriate to the situation. Gene Tierney gives a no-holds-barred performance as the girl gone wrong: a spoiled, rude, petulant baby who is in sharp contrast to the so-called "floozy" of the story, who is by far her superior in every way, except economically.

Ona Munson is wonderful as the amoral Mother Gin Sling. Actually, the first time I saw the film I missed the beginning, and I thought the character was being played by Gloria Swanson. I suppose Swanson could have done it equally as well, but probably would have turned down such an unsavory role.

My favorite character is Mike Mazurki as Mother Gin Sling's strongman. Mazurki was a sometime wrestler/actor, who usually played big dumb gangsters, or big dumb policemen. He is very good here as the menacing presence, and looks strong and manly without a shirt, and no doubt without Pilates.

A totally involving window onto how people thought about each other in the past.
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"Breathtaking treasure...well worth serious attention, as an art film
victorsargeant25 February 2006
Von Sternberg knows what he is doing. Filmed just before Pearl Harbour attack, that may have spoiled the public's liking of Oriental themes, that year.

Digitally restored, will save it for the future, decor, lighting, music and art direction. Bravo.

I noticed how, there are dramatic pauses, facial expressions and reactions, that are thoughtfully used, instead of using dialog. That's expensive, as film is flying thru the camera. Yet, it creates its own dramatic tension that is "beyond" mere words. Silent film technique, using the eyes, shadowed faces, long interludes of feelings before your senses.

Munson is the star, and when she enters the Casino scene for the first time, the music announces her exotic power, presence, and mystery. "God, whose THAT WOMAN?" What an entrance. She is not a person, she is a Goddess, a Creature from another world. Let's talk about making this film into a Broadway Musical, get Sondheim to write the music and words? It could happen...ha

The costumes, the music, the lighting, the camera movement, the sets, all grab you by the throat and pull you in deep. Spellbound?

The set was up for an Oscar and you can understand why. In 1941, cameras like in "Citizen Kane", never moved like that before, say like the long shot when you come down from the Chandlelers into the center pit of the Casino. It is an unbroken long pan for the camera. Rare.

Mother Gin Sling's dinning room, with the gold figured screens, the black Chinese table and chairs, the entrance opens within the screens and makes a grand entrance for all the guests, waiters, etc. This film is great with Chinese food and Green tea, chop chop...

"Poppy's" lipstick changes from dark perfect mask, to the dinning room scene, where the lipstick is transparent, perhaps, metallic gold, to match the gown, but I noticed the change.

Wondered why the mouth was focused differently? Poppy looked more Oriental in the dinning room scene, reflective of her mother's likeness.

Munson was perfect, though sometimes, I heard a Mid-Western "twang", in her voice, like a Truck Stop Hash Joint waitress.

Exotic makeup was fabulous and her gowns were extremely well designed and enveloped her with POWER. Why Mother kills the daughter I don't understand? Was it an accident or did Mother Gin Sling, want to kill her?

An accident I can live with, out right murder seems misplaced. Dad perhaps, should have been shot. Huston and Munson played well with each other, and their emotional debts were resolved. And then....

Mother Gin Sling seems truly "surprised" that Poppy is her daughter, and takes responsibility, for "handling the daughter problem". I was left with the idea, that Huston would help Mother Gin Sling to get out of trouble, with his money and status. Who knows, they might even get back together.

Legally, they are STILL MARRIED, by the way, and with the "ChinaTown" like politics, it could come out well for all involved. I liked Mother Gin Sling and wanted her to not be charged for murder. Maybe they could make a sequel, ha.

"I trade in the weaknesses of others", she says.

This was probably made as a "B" picture, and yet the production was first class and over the top. "Well directed, but over produced" the critics might say. But Hell it was fun any way, right?

It "worked" for me, and I was so pleased to see it tonight on TCM. I taped it, and I am glad it made it onto DVD.

They must have had fun making this film. Again I come back to the sets, as the main focus of the film. The actors needed such a set up to play out their stories. Bravo Von Sternberg. VSS
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Bizarre, Oneiric, Magnificent!!!! DO NOT MISS THIS!!!!
bragant6 November 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This masterwork - unleashed on a bewildered American public shortly after Pearl Harbor - is without doubt one of the most lurid, corrupt and depraved motion pictures ever produced in Old Hollywood - and there is not a curse word or a nude scene to be found! This movie seems to exude a hallucinatory atmosphere reeking of opium smoke, stained silk and half-finished cocktails. You will literally not believe what you are seeing - and that's not a bad thing. An independent production, THE SHANGHAI GESTURE took over 15 years to make it from Broadway to the big screen. The hit play's themes of sexual depravity, prostitution, greed and drug addiction of course could not be presented in a direct fashion due to the Production Code, and various scripts kicked around for a decade before Austrian producer Arnold Pressburger acquired the rights and hired his friend, Josef Von Sternberg, to direct. A legend thanks to his discovery of Marlene Dietrich, the fabled director of THE BLUE ANGEL had fallen on hard times by 1940 - he had not completed a film in several years, had suffered a nervous breakdown, and had expended the bulk of his fortune to help about 30 members of his extended family flee the Third Reich for Switzerland. Sternberg's autocratic mannerisms and insistence on absolute control did nothing to make him more employable. THE SHANGHAI GESTURE was to be Sternberg's last major Hollywood production. The budget for this film was far less than what he had once enjoyed at Paramount, but despite this limitation, Sternberg infuses every frame with his unique look, as well as giving us one of the most astonishing crane shots in the history of the cinema. This film also contains some of the most gorgeous close-ups ever, and the massive casino set is justly revered. This is a movie you watch in black-and-white but remember in color - it is THAT beautiful (note the review below where the writer discusses the "gold" mirrored screens and "black" lacquer of Mother's dining room). The plot revolves around the degradation of Victoria Charteris (aka "Poppy Smith") at the hands of the sinister Mother Gin Sling, owner of the most luxurious gambling den in Shanghai. Mother seeks to destroy Poppy as vengeance against Poppy's father, Sir Guy, who has ordered the closure of Mother's casino, but in the end she gets more than she bargained for...A very young and celestially beautiful Gene Tierney handles Poppy's transformation from sophisticated femme du monde to coarse, drunken slut with aplomb, while Ona Munson turns in the performance of her life as "Mother." Kudos also must go to Victor Mature, who reeks of sleaze and sex as his "Dr." Omar leads Poppy down the primrose path...To those who decry this film as "racist," please bear in mind that Sternberg had traveled frequently in East Asia in the 1930s, was a connoisseur of Chinese art, and knew exactly what he was doing. This movie depicts a pleasure- and money-mad European colonial society in a state of total moral bankruptcy, a world on the verge of complete collapse from its own inner rot and decay, and it cannot be a coincidence that European colonialism in Asia was destroyed by the Japanese within weeks of this film's release. Sternberg is very careful to depict the colonials as the racist, ignorant fools that they for the most part were (note the scene where the etiolated casino money-counter uses pidgin despite the fact that the Chinese man to whom he speaks is obviously fluent in the King's English), and in Shanghai, corruption is a way of life for all, regardless of race or nationality. This film is in fact a tale of revenge against the European occupier and his exploitations. Sternberg was a master of indirection and implication, and every line here has two and sometimes three meanings. You will find it very hard to believe that this was actually made in 1941, and you will wonder how it got past the censors. Years ahead of its time, this should be considered the first true "noir" and deserves to be much more widely known than it is. A dreamlike masterwork like nothing you have ever seen, you will not be able to stop watching this once you begin. Remember, Mother Gin Sling's casino never closes...
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Exotic decadence of original toned down by censors, but still great fun
mlraymond11 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
This 1941 Von Sternberg movie is a real curiosity. The outlandish characters and perverse storyline of the original 1920's Broadway play could never have been filmed in Hollywood at the time. But the movie has a strange, dream-like atmosphere ,that fascinates in its own right.Ona Munson as Mother Gin Sling has a grand, imperious manner and a sly, wicked grin that suggests colorful depths of depravity. There are a couple of scenes where her makeup and hair remind one of Yvonne DeCarlo as Lily Munster, with the same mix of beauty and creepiness. Phyllis Brooks is great as a hardboiled chorus girl with a manner that suggests Mae West. The star performers are Gene Tierney as the spoiled brat daughter of British businessman Walter Huston, and the sleazy, predatory, pimp-like Doctor Omar played by Victor Mature.The teasing, innuendo-laden conversation between them at the bar has a strange quality that verges on camp, and yet is surprisingly sexual. There is a dreamy, ballet-like quality to the sequence where two of her admirers seem to literally pirouette away from her as the lascivious Mature moves in on her. The tone of the film ranges between a kind of self-mockery and winking at the audience, to pure melodrama. The long, uncomfortable scene of the Chinese New Year dinner party builds to a level of intensity that is riveting. Mother Gin Sling holds her guests ,and the audience, spellbound with her impassioned speech about her past life of prostitution and degradation. This scene rises above any possible campiness to a level of such emotional power, that one cannot help but be caught up in it. Her speech ,and her guests' reactions to it, transcend the melodrama to something verging on genuine tragedy. This is a strange, compelling film that deserves to be seen by more viewers. It has a peculiar atmosphere all its own, something absolutely unique in American movies. The sets, the bizarre supporting characters, the wild music, the offbeat and unexpected humor, the powerful undercurrents of sexuality that keep coming through in spite of Hayes office censorship, all add up to an unforgettable, haunting movie. See it as camp, if you must, but see it.
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whpratt15 July 2003
Gene Tierney (Poppy/Victoria Charteris) the spoiled brat of Walter Houston(Sir Guy Charteries) did everything she could to gamble away and give away expensive gifts to a bunch of crooks and a vengeful mommie from the past. Gene Tierney gave an excellent performance, because she herself was going through rough times in her life and this role was very similiar to the mental depressions she was experiences in life. Walter Houston, ("Treasure of the Sierra Madre" 1948) and father of John Houston, the director of "African Queen") tried his best to make his daughter happy and sheltered from the past. Victor Mature(Doctor Omar) was a giglo and gave an excellent performance. Mature was on his way up the ladder of success and gave a great performance in " I Wake Up Screaming". Ona Munson (Mother "Gin Sling" famous actress of the 1930's and 40's was an excellent hateful person, who taught her daughter a bitter lesson about respect and love! Ona Munson appeared in her last film, " THE RED HOUSE" with Edward G. Robinson. Maria Ouspenskaya (The Amah) who appeared in "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" as an old gypsy lady, gave a sinister performance as an old chinese lady and advisor. This is a must see film, with some of the greatest actors of the 1940's and later.
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It's amazing this film didn't kill Gene Tierney's career
MartinHafer25 September 2010
Warning: Spoilers
"The Shanghai Gesture" is one of those weird Hollywood films that is set in China--yet practically no one in the film appears to be Asian--at least when it comes to the major characters! And, in the few cases where there are Asian main characters, they are clearly played by American actors--such as Ona Munson (in completely ridiculous garb) and Mike Mazurki! This WAS the norm for the 1930s and 40s--and even continued into the 50s and 60s (with Tony Randall and 6'^7" Christopher Lee, of all people, playing Chinese men) this sort of casting was never a major issue is beyond me--it certainly would not be acceptable to have white actors playing black characters. Plus, there were some fine Asian actors that would have loved the work! In addition to this bizarro casting wasn't enough, Victor Mature plays a guy who sports a fez and cape--and is called 'Omar'! Wow--only in Hollywood!

It's pretty obvious that this film was originally a play, as just about everything occurs in a gambling den in Shanghai. The way scenes are presented has this stagy feel. But, the original play was MUCH more racy and tons of the plot needed to be changed to meet the demands of the Production Code. For instance, in the play, the setting was a brothel! So, they had to sanitize the script in order to get approval to show this movie in American theaters.

If you think about it, this setting is very much like 1942's "Casablanca"--it,too, is set in a gambling den and bar. Its patrons are very multinational and there is a strong undercurrent of vice. But, there is a style, dialog and a great ensemble cast in "Casablanca" that puts it in a completely different league than "The Shanghai Gesture".

The film finds Tierney in the gambling den and the seemingly nice Mature prods her to try her hand at gambling. At first, she wins big and wants to cash in her chips and leave, but he convinces her to continue. Not only does she lose all her money and jewelry, but has been extended lots of credit--and there appears to be no way she can ever repay the loans. Obviously Mature has pushed her into this situation so that she will owe her soul (and body) to the proprietress, 'Mother Gin Sling' (Munson). And yet, oddly, Tierney throws herself at Mature! What a dummy!

Later, after throwing a ridiculous temper-tantrum, Tierney goes to see her father--the man who thinks he's going to shut down the 'gambling house' and deport its owner. Now, however, Tierney's debt makes this seem doubtful. How all this is worked out at a kooky dinner party is something you can find out for yourself...if you really care! Frankly, I stopped caring only about halfway through this silly film.

Now let's talk about Mother Gin Sling. I probably am not allowed to use the name the play originally used for her--IMDb doesn't allow swearing in the reviews. You really have to see her to believe it--she looks like something out of a sci-fi film--like the original "Flash Gordon" or "The Fifth Element"! Her hair and silly makeup just have to be seen to believed. And, she looks laughable...and about as Asian as a taco!

As for Tierney, this film is early in her career so I guess we can't blame her too much for her bad acting (particulary at around the 60 minute mark)--really, really bad acting. She goes from a cool and sexy lady to a totally annoying child who makes you want to backhand her--she was THAT annoying and her performance that shallow! Frankly, it was embarrassing to watch her and I am amazed that I was able to keep watching...though I am a glutton for punishment!

To put it bluntly, a pretty stupid film without a lot to recommend it. Perhaps the big confrontation scene between Munson and Walter Huston might provide some decent entertainment...but I doubt it.
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Do not miss if you like old-time classix; a fantastic 'pulp' satire of glamour and greed
Aw-komon29 July 2000
Some critics had the audacity to give this two stars in their video guide! What a bunch of jokers! This flick is superior to Shanghai Express, Morroco and even The Blue Angel. What a cast of characters Von Sternberg brings to life and how ridiculous but nevertheless multidimensional and real they are! It is romance and glamour that makes fun of itself mercilessly. Victor Mature has never been funnier or Gene Tierney more glamorous. Ona Munsoon as Madame Gin Sling--the Shanghai casino operator with the most outrageous hairstyle in the history of movies--is every evil-side-of-glamour caricature condensed into one package. Shanghai Gesture is not 'camp' because it accomplishes everything it sets out to do. It was planned this way. If Casablanca had been a multi layered satire we would have had something akin to 'Shanghai Gesture.'
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One of my Top movies
chris-45924 October 1999
I'm a fan of von Sternberg's work. The action of "The Shanghai Gesture" is almost always set in Mother Gin Sling's Casino, which gives us a claustrophobic feeling, which gives us an idea of Evil, a spider's web from which one can't get out. It can also be an image of Hell: note the drink that Poppy Smith (Gene Tierney) asks the barman to give her... It's one of my favorite films: the set works out, Gene Tierney is beautiful (and no angel...), Victor Mature is perfect here, no one would believe that Ona Munson isn't chineese - therefore the make-up is also very good -, even the wrusky voice of the "chorus girl" (Phyllis Brooks) is a good touch.
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Ming The Merciless Meets Las Vegas
dougdoepke23 August 2010
More weird than exotic, it's like waking up and finding Ming The Merciless in charge of a Las Vegas casino. Then too, Mother Gin Sling's head should be featured in Architectural Digest since it resembles nothing less than the Manhattan skyline. And how wacky is it finding all those central European types hiding out in Shanghai as Chinese of one racial blend or another. No wonder the Chinese consulate complained. Only wacko Hollywood could turn a semi-pornographic play into a trip to bizarro-land and put a visual artist like von Sternberg in charge.

For example, catch that great opening boom-shot of the casino interior where patrons swarm like bees over a hive. Or the surging street crowds that seem to suck the life out of the very air. I think Sternberg could take an empty room and make it visually interesting. No doubt about it, the Austrian director lifts the eye at the same time he depresses the brain. What the heck, for example, did he tell Gene Tierney that turned her from a Miss Manners in one scene into a raging nympho the next. I guess that was supposed to be because of Victor Mature's overwhelming magnetism even though he lounges around like a well-fed garden slug. No doubt about it, the celebrated director preferred postures to people.

Still, where else could a passing stranger buy a girl-in-a-basket instead of the usual chicken. That scene alone is worth all the other nuttiness, like telling us the girls are just- pretend. Yeah, sure. I'll bet the Chinese consulate didn't think so. Even so, you can't blame the screenplay for having more holes than grandma's sieve. This is incendiary material for the Production Code 40's— brothels, hookers, opium dens, babies out of wedlock. How else could enterprising producers get this on screen without a trip to bizzaro-land. The straight- laced Walter Huston must have thought he'd wandered into the wrong sound stage.

Any way you cut it, it's a weird one-of-a-kind-- half camp, half brilliance-- so don't miss it.
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As ripe as a fetid orchid, and almost as pleasurable to watch
Terrell-429 June 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Odd flowers come to mind. The Shanghai Gesture seems like another of Josef von Sternberg's ripely fetid orchids, fascinating to observe but which can leave a nasty smell in your nose if you take a sniff. No, perhaps it's like a pitcher plant from the Discovery Channel, cut open so we can watch a fly slide down into a sweet smelling pool of liquid and then be slowly digested while it struggles for life. Wow, that purple prose is almost as good as some of what von Sternberg comes up with. He might have been a master of mise en scene, whatever that catch-all phrase may mean, but his movies can be so ripe, lush and oblivious to what makes a good movie that in some perverse way at least a handful of his films are still interesting. The Scarlet Empress, for example, is so over the top with such a sly and amusingly lewd performance by Marlene Dietrich that even Criterion has blessed it. The Shanghai Gesture is not all that good, but it is so seriously fervid, so stuffed with oozing melodrama and contains so many fascinating performances, some excellent and some not, that the movie just keeps striding through its 99 minutes.

We're in Shanghai in the International Settlement. Mother Gin Sling, a dragon lady who rose from poverty and enslaved prostitution now owns the most elegant, the largest, and the richest casino in town. She's a powerful woman. She knows everything that needs knowing about the important foreign men in Shanghai who come to be flattered and gamble at her establishment. She knows quite a bit about their wives, too. Sir Guy Charteris, however, who is new to Shanghai, is buying up property to turn into a rich new development, and that will include Mother Gin Sling's establishment. Charteris has a lovely young daughter, just out of finishing school. She's beautiful, impulsive, spoiled and is used to her father's money. She loves the idea of dark thrills. She's soon to become a pawn between Mother Gin Sling and Charteris, who doesn't realize that long ago the young Chinese girl he married and lost was...yes, Mother Gin Sling. 'Mother' will get her revenge on this man, all right, but Charteris has a secret of his own. You'll never guess, of course. It all comes together at an elegant Chinese New Year's dinner party hosted by 'Mother,' with firecrackers going off outside in the streets, girls in basket cages hoisted up outside her window to be bid on by eager rickshaw drivers and cold revenge served up as the main course

The quality of the movie is as variable as the acting. Walter Huston as Charteris is excellent. He was a commanding actor and always interesting to watch. He might be remembered by most nowadays as the old coot Howard, smarter than them all, in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but watch him in Dodsworth. As Sam Dodsworth he's touching and unforgettable.

Ona Munson as the vengeance-driven, hardened Mother Gin Sling, however, is just caricature. At times her line reading sounds like Mae West was playing the part. Sternberg gives her a lacquered hairdo that would make Medusa envious. As the smooth Doctor Omar, one of Mother Gin Sling's many corrupt employees, Victor Mature does a surprisingly good job. With his fleshy lips, sleepy eyes and wearing evening clothes, he looks the part. He has to contend with some silly lines to say, a ridiculous fez to wear and what appears to be a silk bed sheet tossed around his shoulders. Gene Tierney, beautiful, carefully photographed, stunning to see, simply can't act. She manages as the spoiled Victoria Charteris, but as the corrupted Poppy Smith, even when she's trying her best, she just can't handle the part. The secondary actors range from awkward, obvious portrayals to the fine work of Eric Blore as a genuinely offensive sycophant who belongs to 'Mother,' Albert Basserman as an aged and worldly commissioner and Mike Mazurki as a big, big Chinese coolee who does with sullen pleasure what 'Mother' tells him to.

To give some sympathy to Sternberg, the Hollywood Code required him to make Victoria's downfall the result of being led by Doctor Omar to gambling and liquor. This makes her degradation at the hands of Mother Gin Sling seem a little lightweight. In the play, of course, Omar led her to sex and opium.

Still, you can't beat the last scene in the movie. The secrets have been exposed, a shooting has taken place, the 'best' people in Shanghai have fled 'Mother's' party and the fireworks are exploding. Amidst all this the sweaty, bare-chested Mazurki turns to Sir Guy as they stand in the crowded street and asks, "Likee Chinee New Year?"
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Great scenes, senseless story
martyg-329 March 2004
I have to assume that this movie was shot too long and then was drastically cut. The characters don't develop, they just happen. In particular, Gene Tierney's descent from self-confident rich girl to rudderless wastrel is too disjointed to be convincing. And Huston's behavior, especially with the rickshaw coolie, defies understanding.What is still left is a visual delight - the Casino - a swirling mass of activity and suggested vice, the clothing, the other interior scenery and especially Munson's hairstyles. There is also some wit to the dialogue, but it is a sometime thing. As released, it must be accounted a failure - but it is still worth watching for the features I've mentioned above.
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"All roads lead to Shanghai, but not everyone is welcomed so officially"
ackstasis4 April 2009
Having just watched 'The Shanghai Gesture (1941),' I'm not even sure what to make of it. Was it a good film? Was it a complete mess? The 100 minutes unfolded like a drug-induced haze, the alluring scent of an opiate hanging thickly in the air. Somehow, the film's plot – whatever it may have been about – seemed totally and utterly inconsequential, with director Josef von Sternberg placing additional, almost superfluous, importance on the development of mood. Indeed, aside from atmosphere, there's little else to keep you watching the film: the characters are sleazy and grotesque, the sort you'd expect to find at a seedy casino, its employees imbued with the mock dignity of one who deals exclusively in exploiting the weaknesses of lesser men. A good cast – Walter Huston, Gene Tierney, Victor Mature, Eric Blore – is not exactly wasted on such poorly-developed characters, but one gets the sense that even they are not exactly sure what they're doing in this place. But, if the film is a failure, then it's a genuinely fascinating one.

'Mother' Gin Sling (Ona Munson, in unflattering Oriental make-up) is the mysterious and ruthless owner of a Shanghai casino, where desperate men come night or day to gamble their lives and fortunes. Employee Doctor Omar (Victor Mature) does his best to charm the beautiful girls who come his way, in one night snagging both smart-talking American Dixie (Phyllis Brooks) and conceited rich-girl "Poppy" (Gene Tierney). When threatened with closure by wealthy entrepreneur Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), Gin Sling springs into action, using her enormous influence to rebuff the challenge. 'The Shanghai Gesture' is sometimes categorised as film noir. Certainly, other noir pictures like 'Macao (1952),' which Josef von Sternberg directed until he was replaced by Nicholas Ray, utilised a similarly exotic Asian setting, so the non-American locale doesn't immediately preclude it from consideration. In some ways, it fits the bill: every character in the film has a weakness – something to hide – through which they can be manipulated; a shady past that has come back to haunt them.

Despite being restricted by the provisions of the Production Code, 'The Shanghai Gesture' is one of the sleaziest films of its era, leaving a bitter, uneasy taste in the mouth, despite impeccable production values. Hollywood's interpretation of Eastern cultural values was evidently unflattering, and every Asian character is utterly devoid of morals, with particularly prominence given to the proudly misogynistic attitudes of one Chinese employee who likes to brag of his polygyny. A shocking history of sex slavery is exposed, with New Year's Eve guests treated to a recreation of these ghastly practices (or, at least, we're told that it is merely a recreation). But it isn't only the Chinese whose immorality is exposed, and even the seemingly upright Sir Guy betrays a suspect past, doomed finally to suffer for his alleged sins. Walter Huston is excellent as always, bringing conviction to a film in which everybody else seems uncertain of their roles. Gene Tierney, perhaps her most ravishing performance outside 'Laura (1944),' isn't particularly convincing, but her falseness does strangely work, given the desperate phoniness of her character.
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One of A Kind: My Favorite Guilty Pleasure Defies Criticism!
museumofdave24 March 2013
Sometimes I just put my reasoned critic to bed and grab my DVD of Shanghai Gesture for an evening of irrational delight. This extravagant, unhinged, twisted and sometimes terrible film is my Guilty Pleasure, a confession I honor by giving it a higher rating than it probably deserves.

When this bizarre film was made, Hollywood, still under the yoke of a stringent production code, could not tackle many taboo subjects and thus director Josef Von Sternberg could only hint at them. The brothel, for instance, where the original Broadway play was set, becomes a gambling den (although girls in bamboo cages are dangled outside!) Any hints of drug use were forbidden, so Gene Tierney's opium-addled, spoiled monster of a daughter is named "Poppy" (as in Opium), and the owner of the casino, formerly Mother "G-D" is now called Mother Gin Sling...and so on. Most of America was flocking to see Mickey Rooney in The Hardy Family series, a happy product from MGM. Shanghai Gesture is hardly mainstream.

This strange film was not made at a major studio, but produced by Arnold Pressburger, who did manage to sign an amazing assemblage of major character actors to enact a plot of ultimate revenge. There's Victor Mature, hiding in his capacious burnoose, sleazy in a fez, playing Dr. Omar, seducer of the innocent, or Ona Munson, remembered by some viewers as good-hearted bordello gal Belle Watling in Gone With The Wind, sporting a series of Hollywood's most outrageous wigs. And there's Walter Huston with a gimpy arm, and even acting instructor Maria Ouspenskaya, wordless as "The Amah."

The sets alone are worth the viewing, from the initial shot of Madame Gin Sling's gambling den, a Deco vortex of gambling activity sucking you into an absurd plot loaded with illogical coincidence. This frenzied Asian Fantasy, which has little to do with reality, and everything to do with Out-Of-Control Style can be great fun and is sometimes admirable for the right reasons.

"You likee Chinee New Year?" says Mike Mazurki, usually seen in films as a two-bit gangster, here a shirtless bouncer who has seldom been better! One caveat: Criterion needs to get their hands on this one and turn out a decent print--the DVD quality is, at best, mediocre! But I want my Shanghai Gesture anyway!
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Beautifully Over the Top and Overblown.
JohnWelles8 October 2010
"The Shanghai Gesture" (1941), an early audition to the film noir genre (made in the same year as "The Maltese Falcon") and directed by the great Josef von Sternberg, based on the play of the same name by John Colton and starring the luminous Gene Tierney, Walter Huston and Victor Mature.

The plot follows Mother Gin Sling's (Ona Munson) casino in Shanghai and the various exploits of the people in it, like Poppy Smith (Tierney) and her infatuation with the Arab Doctor Omar (Mature) and Gin Sling trying to stop the Shanghai authorities from shutting down the place.

This has obviously been heavily cut (the title is never properly explained) by the censors over at the Hays office and that is hardly surprising: in the original play, the gambling house was a brothel, Gene Tierney's character was addicted to drugs (only her name gives any indication of that), and the Mother Gin Sling was called Mother Goddam. Several parts of the film simply just do not make coherent sense and von Sternberg, as has been noted by film critic Tony Rayns, seems to be more interested in the luxurious set of the casino and trying to make Tierney look as beautiful as possible with the aid of his marvellous cinematographer Paul Ivano anyway rather than tell a exciting good story. The actors, under the circumstances perform remarkably well: Victor Mature playing an Arab is as preposterous as John Wayne as Genghis Kahn, but it works, unbelievably though it may seem and gives the best performance of the motion picture. The young Gene Tierney, while not at the height of her acting prowess yet, is still vivid and Walter Huston, likewise not in his finest surrounds gives a solid piece of acting and a host of well know faces pop up through at the movie: Maria Ouspenskaya, Eric Blore and Mike Mazurki all make appearances. An over blown delight like "Duel in the Sun" (1946, which von Sternberg also had an un-credited hand in) that is so fun despite or because of its flaws; it is truly one of a kind.
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