Famed director ends up with too many cooks in his kitchen.
The film noir The Lady from Shanghai, starring Hollywood icons Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles, and directed by Welles, premiered in 1947 but reached Australia today in 1948, with this stunning promo poster having been distributed Down Under to help attract audiences. This film had amazing promos in many countries, some of which we'll show you later, and they all spelled Welles' last name correctly, which this one didn't. All the brilliant poster work around this movie is ironic, because Harry Cohn, who was the shot-caller at Columbia Pictures, hated it. He even shelved the flick for a year while he waited for what he deemed to be the best date to release it. When he finally did, what audiences saw was a radically altered version of Welles' original edit.
What did Cohn specifically hate about the film? Foremost there was its length, which was 155 minutes, and which Cohn ordered condensed, with the final running time coming to a mere 88 minutes. He also felt Hayworth didn't have enough close-ups, so he had those shot during extensive re-takes. Hayworth also didn't have a song, which was standard for film noir leading ladies, so Cohn had a number added and had Hayworth's voice dubbed. He hated the lighting, which he felt was a negative result of Welles choosing location work over controlled studio conditions. And he especially hated that Hayworth had agreed to chop off her auburn hair and dye it platinum. The list goes on but you get the point—clashing creative visions. Nothing new in Hollywood.
The Lady from Shanghai finds Welles playing a typical film noir schmo who falls in love with a femme fatale and is drawn into a murder plot. Other familiar film noir tropes include a trip to Mexico (not in the original novel by Sherwood King) and a tense court showdown. But what's decidedly uncommon here is Welles' visual mastery of the cinematic form. His abilities there have been exhaustively discussed and are in no way overrated, but visuals are only part of the filmic equation. There's also narrative pace and story cohesion and emotional tone, and those are areas where the movie runs into a bit of trouble. Since Welles' cut was so much longer (and presumably better) than what has ever been seen by the public, many of those problems were probably introduced by clumsy third parties.
But we can only judge what we see. Since all that missing footage is thought to have been destroyed, it takes a major leap of faith to see a masterpiece in what Welles himself thought was a diced up travesty of his original vision. We don't understand how anyone can truly revere him, yet disregard his artistic opinion. But that's exactly what some contemporary film writers do. We recently read a review that discussed how well the visuals and music work together, but Welles hated the score, which he had no control over and which lacked the subtlety he wanted it to have. We suggest that a critic is trying way too hard when they lavish praise upon a director for something he didn't even do. Welles was a genius—agreement on that point is universal. But even geniuses are not so magical that their abilities can overcome the artistic myopia and careless scissors of studio heads.
The Lady from Shanghai received mixed reviews when released, and ultimately, those reviews strike us as fair. There's plenty here worth seeing, particularly the ravishing Hayworth and nice location work in Acapulco and Sausalito, and of course Welles makes shots like Steph Curry makes 3s. But even so, the final result is good but not great. Not a failure, but not a top notch film noir. Calling The Lady from Shanghai one of the best of the genre is just unfair to the many, many great noirs that were made. Still, if you're a noir fan you should see it. And we're confident you'll enjoy it like we did. On the other hand, if you've never watched a film noir and this happens to be first one you see, we can easily picture you giving a shrug and drifting away from the genre, never to return.
Is there anything sweeter than a beautiful movie palace?
You probably recognize Grauman's Chinese Theatre, in Los Angeles. These days it's called TCL Chinese Theatre, because it's owned and operated by TCL Corporation—based in China, ironically. Since we write so often about movies we thought it appropriate to discuss the beautiful buildings in which the films were exhibited. Back in the day these were usually purpose-built structures, though some did split duty for stage productions and concerts. While many of these old palaces survive, nearly all surviving vintage cinemas in the U.S. were under threat at some point. Generally, if they hadn't been given historic protection they wouldn't be upright today.
Other times, if a city was poor, real estate costs didn't rise and old buildings stood unthreatened, usually idle. This happened often in the American midwest, where movie houses were neglected for decades before some were resurrected amid downtown revitalizations. It sometimes happens in Latin America too, although occasionally the formula fails. For example, Cartagena's majestic and oft photographed landmark Teatro Colón, located in the historic section of Colombia's most popular coastal tourist city, was torn down fewer than six months ago to make way for a Four Seasons Hotel.
Some of the cinemas below are well known treasures, while others are more unassuming places. But even those lesser known cinemas show how much thought and work was put into making moviegoing a special experience. The last photo, which shows the Butterfly Theatre in Milwaukee, exemplifies that idea. The façade is distinguished by a terra cotta butterfly sculpture adorned with light bulbs. As you might guess, many of the most beautiful large cinemas were in Los Angeles, which means that city is well represented in the collection. Enjoy.
Paramount Theatre, Oakland (operational).
Cine Maya, Mérida (demolished).
The Albee Cinema, Cincinnati (demolished)
Cooper Theatre, Denver (demolished).
Paras Cinema, Jaipur (operational).
Cathay Cinema, Shanghai (operational).
Academy Theatre, Los Angeles (operational).
Charlottenburg Filmwerbung, Berlin (demolished).
Pacific's Cinerama Theatre, Los Angeles (operational).
York Theatre, Elmhurst (operational).
La Gaumont-Palace, Paris (demolished).
Essoldo Cinema, Newcastle (demolished).
Théâtre Scala, Strasbourg (operational).
Teatro Colón, Cartagena (demolished in 2018).
Teatro Coliseo Argentino, Buenos Aires (demolished).
Pavilion Theater, Adelaide (demolished).
El Molino Teatro, Barcelona (operational).
Fox Carthay Theatre, Los Angeles (demolished).
Kino Rossiya Teatr, Moscow (operational).
Nippon Gekijo, aka Nichigeki, Tokyo (demolished).
Cine Impala, Namibe (operational).
Cine Arenal, Havana (operational).
Teatro Mérida, Mérida (operational, renamed Teatro Armando Manzanero).
Ideal Theater, Manila (demolished).
Odeon Cinema, London (semi-demolished, converted to apartments).
Mayan Theatre, Los Angeles (operational).
Rex Cinema, Port au Prince (being restored).
Urania Kino, Vienna (operational).
Tampa Theatre, Tampa (operational).
The Butterfly Theater, Milwaukee (demolished).
That was interesting. Next time can we just do it the normal way?
There's no festish sex or podophilia in With Naked Foot. This is actually a serious novel about whites coming to ruin in Africa, which is a crowded literary niche, but one in which Emily Hahn carved out an important place for herself. In fact, maybe the adjective “Hahnesque” should be used alongside “Hemingwayesque.” This is a person who wrote fifty-four books and more than two hundred articles and short stories, whose works were significant in romanticizing Africa and Asia for western readers, who lived in Florence and London in the mid-1920s, traveled to the Belgian Congo where she worked for the Red Cross, lived with a pygmy tribe for two years, crossed Central Africa alone on foot, and journeyed to Shanghai where she taught English for three years while becoming acquaintances with political powerhouses the Soong Sisters and the Chinese poet Zau Sinmay. With Naked Foot is, therefore, unusually well informed. It revolves around a beautiful Congolese girl named Mawa whose relationships with various lustful white men bring disaster. The reviews were rapturous, though some critics protested that it was too focused on sex. That's never a complaint you'll hear from us, though some of the usual flaws of mid-century racial fiction are evident. The cover art on this Bantam paperback was painted by an unknown, and the copyright is 1951.
I shot my alarm clock. After years of abuse it was long overdue.
Above, a nice image of a nightgown clad, gun accessorized Rita Hayworth in her rare platinum blonde incarnation. The photo was made as a promo for her film noir The Lady from Shanghai, 1947.
Please let me go! I’m not even in this book!
Originally published in 1933, with this Century Publications paperback appearing in 1946, Van Wyck Mason’s The Shanghai Bund Murders was seventh in a series of twenty-six mostly similarly titled thrillers such as The Hongkong Airbase Murders, The Sulu Sea Murders, and—no one-trick-pony Mr. Mason—The Budapest Parade Murders, because murder happens even outside Asia. All of these starred his spy creation Hugh North, and here Hugh finds a coin—previously carried by an agent who suffered an early demise—that is engraved with a coded message about Chinese military secrets. You get pro forma anti-commie stuff, but the real villains here are western gunrunners. The excellent cover art, which is not related to the text, is by Malcolm Smith.
It’s good to be top of the heap.
Above, the iconic Rita Hayworth, star of such films as the incomparable Gilda, as well as The Lady from Shanghai, Cover Girl, and the musical You Were Never Lovelier, seen here looking comfy at the height of her fame in a photo made at her home, by her rather astonishing pool with its central island and palm tree, in 1945.
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.
Orson Welles makes a run to the border.
It has the most famous one-take tracking shot in cinema history, it’s the last of the official film noirs (unless you’re one of those Kiss Me Deadly purists), and it was directed by distinguished filmmaker Orson Welles. It was called Touch of Evil, and above you see its moody Swedish laguage poster. Though the film has its flaws, the technical prowess on display is indisputable. At this point film noir was a well-charted phenomenon in which Welles had already dabbled when he made Lady from Shanghai and The Stranger. This time out, he wanted to fully explore the possibilities of shadow the way a painter might explore the possibilities of oils. Everyone knew black-and-white was on the way out. Touch of Evil was Welles’ commentary on the style. He was showing the world what was possible, and by extension, what might be impossible using color.
The casting of Charlton Heston as Ramón Miguel Vargas has been thoroughly discussed pretty much everywhere, and those criticisms are understandable. Certainly, an actor such as, say, Ricardo Montalbán would have shone where Heston merely sufficed, but 1958 audiences would have disliked lily white Janet Leigh being hooked up with an actual latino actor. People overlook that when they criticize Heston's casting. Welles made a racial statement by swapping the ethnicities of the central couple from Whit Masterson's source novel, in which the cop was white and his wife was Mexican. That's as far as he was willing to go. Cinema mirrors the age in which it was produced. It’s okay to use our modern world as a prism through which to examine the circumstances around an old film, but it’s best do so respectfully, because somewhere in the future people with their own prisms will be looking upon our age, and it won’t look so good to them. Touch of Evil played in Sweden for the first time today in 1958.
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