Vintage Pulp Jan 15 2013
SHANGHAI SURPRISE
Westerners undone yet again by the inscrutable Chinee.


The Shanghai Gesture is a movie we were excited to see. It’s a Josef von Sternberg directed vehicle adapted from a John Colton play (though neutered due to Hays Code worries), with Gene Tierney starring alongside Victor Mature, Walter Huston, Ona Munson, and Phyllis Brooks. Von Sternberg makes almost fetishistic use of his main asset—the luscious Tierney—by showing her in such extreme close-up you’d almost think it’s her breath fogging the lens, rather than one of the diffusion filters mid-century filmmakers utilized to shoot their female stars. A few minutes after she appears, as she observes the decadent tableau inside a Shanghai casino, she pulls out this line: “The place smells evil, like a place where anything can happen.” We’d suggest that if a place smells evil, something already happened. Blame the nearest person. Or the dog. Anyway, when Tierney makes her observation we understand pretty quickly that it’s going to be about her, a flower of Western purity, and her headlong descent into Oriental flooziedom.

All well and good, but the filmmakers fall prey to the type of easy characterizations that the best movies of the period were learning to avoid. When you observe, for example, the mostly respectful depiction of a character like Sam in 1942’s Casablanca, it becomes difficult not to cringe at such excesses here as Ona Munson's Chinese character MotherGin Sling entering rooms to the sound of a gong, or Walter Huston’s Sir Guy Charteris—a supposed old hand in Asia—querying Mike Mazurky with, “You speakee Chinee? Cantonee? You breakee window?” Did Westerners in China back then really say things like that? We’re dying to know. Mazurky gets the last line in the film, tossing off a smug echo of one of Huston’s earlier questions, and at that moment he’s a sort of stand-in for all Shanghai, which by now we know is a place where white people meet their ruin, but still—“You speakee Chinee?” The unintentional humor of such moments undermines the believability of the entire enterprise.

Another problem for us is that Victor Mature comes across as singularly unappealing. He’s not supposed to be a nice guy, but depriving him of any shred of charm makes it hard to believe Tierney would desire him. In any case, the script requires this and other indignities of poor Gene, and soon her fall from grace is so complete she even loses her mellifluous upper class accent and starts braying like a donkey. Yes, there’s some good here. Tierney is spellbindingly beautiful (one reason so many people thinkthis movie is better than it really is, we suspect). Some of the interiors are excellent, especially Mother Gin Sling’s baroque circular casino. A couple of the set pieces are striking, such as when young women are hoisted in baskets above a crowd of men clambering to buy them for their flower boats—i.e., floating brothels. And Huston is solid in his portrayal of Charteris. But all in all, The Shanghai Gesture is strictly so-so.

Incidentally, the movie is widely labeled a film noir, but it really isn’t. Yes, it can be difficult to say definitively whether a film fits into a certain category because “genre” is a nebulous concept to begin with, but we submit that this one is well off the mark, no more a noir than is The Lost Weekend, or for that matter Casablanca. If we’d known in advance it was a run-of-the-mill melodrama—yes, an exotic one, but also clunky and unengaging—we would not have expected the cutting cynicism and visual wit that characterize so many film noirs. If you go into it expecting something more along the lines of a B-picture, then The Shanghai Gesture might entertain. But whatever you expect, don’t think you're goingto see von Sternberg or Tierney doing their best work. At top you see the original American promo poster, and below that some production photos. The Shanghai Gesture premiered in New York City on Christmas 1941, and went into national release today in 1942.

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
February 26
1917—First Jazz Record Is Made
In New Orleans, The Original Dixieland Jass Band records the first ever jazz record for the Victor Talking Machine Company in New York. The band was frequently billed as the "Creators of Jazz", but in reality all the members had previously played in the Papa Jack Laine bands, a group of racially mixed performers who helped form the basis of Dixieland while playing under bandleader George Laine.
February 25
1947—Prussia Ceases To Exist
The centuries-old state of Prussia, which had been a great European power under the reign of Frederick the Great during the 1800s, and a major influence on German culture, ceases to exist when it is dissolved by the post-WWII Allied Control Council comprised of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union.
1964—Clay Beats Liston
Heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay, aged 22, becomes champion of the world after beating Sonny Liston, aka the Dark Destroyer, in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. It would be the beginning of a storied and controversial career for Clay, who would announce to the world shortly after the fight that he had changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
February 24
1920—The Nazi Party Is Founded
The small German Workers' Party, or DAP, which was under the direction of Adolf Hitler, changes its name to the National Socialist German Workers' Party. Though Hitler adopted the socialist label to attract working class Germans, his party in fact embraced mainly anti-socialist ideas. The group became known in English as the Nazi Party, and within the next fifteen years expanded to become the most powerful force in German politics.
1942—Battle of Los Angeles Takes Place
A object flying over wartime Los Angeles triggers a massive anti-aircraft barrage, ultimately killing 3 civilians. Initially the target of the aerial barrage is thought to be an attacking force from Japan, but it is later suggested to be imaginary and a case of "war nerves", a lost weather balloon, a blimp, a Japanese fire balloon, or even an extraterrestrial craft. The true nature of the object or objects remains unknown to this day, but the event is known as the Battle of Los Angeles.
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