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 Chinesecharacter Mother Gin 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. Then there's Munson's insta-Asian makeover. It was standard practice back then, and you know that already before going into any Asian themed movie, but it still looks bad today.
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
think this 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. 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 mistakenly 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 thinkyou're going to 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.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1947—Edwin Land Unveils His New Camera
In New York City, scientist and inventor Edwin Land demonstrates the first instant camera, the Polaroid Land Camera, at a meeting of the Optical Society of America. The camera, which contains a special film that self-develops prints in a minute, goes on sale the next year to the public and is an immediate sensation.
1965—Malcolm X Is Assassinated
American minister and human rights activist Malcolm X is assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City by members of the Nation of Islam, who shotgun him in the chest and then shoot him sixteen additional times with handguns. Though three men are eventually convicted of the killing, two have always maintained their innocence, and all have since been paroled.
1935—Caroline Mikkelsen Reaches Antarctica
Norwegian explorer Caroline Mikkelsen, accompanying her husband Captain Klarius Mikkelsen on a maritime expedition, makes landfall at Vestfold Hills and becomes the first woman to set foot in Antarctica. Today, a mountain overlooking the southern extremity of Prydz Bay is named for her.
1972—Walter Winchell Dies
American newspaper and radio commentator Walter Winchell, who invented the gossip column while working at the New York Evening Graphic, dies of cancer. In his heyday from 1930 to the 1950s, his newspaper column was syndicated in over 2,000 newspapers worldwide, he was read by 50 million people a day, and his Sunday night radio broadcast was heard by another 20 million people.
1976—Gerald Ford Rescinds Executive Order 9066
U.S. President Gerald R. Ford signs Proclamation 4417, which belatedly rescinds Executive Order 9066. That Order, signed in 1942 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, established "War Relocation Camps" for Japanese-American citizens living in the U.S. Eventually, 120,000 are locked up without evidence, due process, or the possibility of appeal, for the duration of World War II.
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