The Shanghai Gesture (1941) is an odd film. It was one of the last major films from director Josef von Sternberg. It was based on a play that was first performed in 1925. The original story was about drug addiction and an evil den of prostitution. By the time it made it to the big screen, the code was in full effect and many changes had to be made to the story.
Josef von Sternberg was an Austrian born filmmaker who discovered Marlene Dietrich and made her a star. He directed her in seven films. By the 1940’s von Sternberg’s career was almost over and when this film bombed at the box office, von Sternberg didn’t make another movie until 1952.
Despite being toned down the film still manages to push boundaries. The film is set in a casino in Shanghai. The place is run by a Chinese woman known as Mother Gin Sling. Hollywood being the racist machine that it is had cast a blonde white woman in the role. Ona Munson, best known for her role in Gone with the Wind, plays Mother Gin Sling with the usual racist make-up and some outrageous wigs. Walter Huston co-stars as a rich man trying to shut the place down. Victor Mature is Mother Gin Sling’s right hand man Omar and Gene Tierney is a young woman who becomes addicted to gambling and drinking.
The movie has become categorized as film noir. Von Sternberg’s stylistic use of smoke and shadows creates a steamy atmosphere for this den of sin. The film moves at a leisurely pace. There are mysteries to be solved here but von Sternberg is in no hurry to reveal anything until the end of the film. Of course some of the mysteries are obvious to the viewer like who Gene Tierney’s character really is. Despite the code and the re-writing, von Sternberg still managed to get away with some questionable material, the ending being one. I won’t spoil it but – wow! I don’t think they would make a movie like this today.