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.
March 06
1975—Zapruder Film Shown on Television
For the first time, the Zapruder film of President John F. Kennedy's assassination is shown in motion to a national television audience by Robert J. Groden and Dick Gregory on the show Good Night America, which was hosted by Geraldo Rivera. The viewing led to the formation of the United States House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA), which investigated the killings of both Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
March 05
1956—Desegregation Ruling Upheld
In the United States, the Supreme Court upholds a ban on racial segregation in state schools, colleges and universities. The University of North Carolina had been appealing an earlier ruling from 1954, which ordered college officials to admit three black students to what was previously an all-white institution. In many southern states, talk after the ruling turned toward subsidizing white students so they could attend private schools, or even abolishing public schools entirely, but ultimately, desegregation did take place.
1970—Non-Proliferation Treaty Goes into Effect
After ratification by 43 nations, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons goes into effect. Of the non-signatory nations, India and Pakistan acknowledge possessing nuclear weapons, and Israel is known to. One signatory nation, North Korea, has withdrawn from the treaty and also produced nukes. International atomic experts estimate that the number of states that accumulate the material and know-how to produce atomic weapons will soon double.
March 04
1969—The Krays Are Found Guilty of Murder
In England, twins Ronald and Reginald Kray are found guilty of the murder of Jack McVitie. The Kray brothers had been notorious gangsters in London's East End, and for their crimes both were sentenced to life in prison, and both eventually died behind bars. Their story later inspired a 1990 motion picture entitled The Krays.
1975—Charlie Chaplin Is Knighted
British-born comic genius Charlie Chaplin, whose long and turbulent career in the U.S. had been brought to an abrupt end when he was branded a communist and denied a residence visa, is bestowed a knighthood at London's Buckingham Palace. Chaplin died two years later and even then peace eluded him, as his body was stolen from its grave for eleven weeks by men trying to extort money from the Chaplin family.

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