Everyone has a movie favorite that they never tire of watching. I have two, Sunset Boulevard and The Shanghai Gesture. Ona Munson as Mother Gin Sling in Josef von Sternberg‘s Shanghai Gesture, is my all-time favorite “woman out for revenge” character. Ona plays a Shanghai casino owner, hellbent on destroying the man who abandoned her as a child. Leaving the young girl to suffer an implied “fate worst than death”. The Madame manipulates the circumstances with Asian cunning, tinged with ancient Chinese malevolence. The film is chock full of politically incorrect Asian slurs and less than brilliant dialogue. “You Likie Chinese New Year?” which makes it all the more entertaining. A film Noir classic Sternberg‘s atmosphere is superb, the sets and costumes are fabulous.
This was no “B” movie, the cast is first class and production values were superb.
The last person likely to create an acceptable adaptation of The Shanghai Gesture was von Sternberg, the self-consciously exotic director who had made Marlene Dietrich a star in such decadent films as The Blue Angel(1930), Morocco (1930) and Shanghai Express (1932).
This didn’t stop him from making the film distinctly his own. To the original script he added two new characters: an American showgirl (Phyllis Brooks, who would retire from acting to marry Congressman Torbert H. MacDonald) and Omar, a “Doctor of Nothing” (Victor Mature, in one of his first film roles) whose sardonic presence seems to mirror the director’s own viewpoint. Working with frequent collaborator Jules Furthman and Karl Vollmoeller (who had worked on the script for The Blue Angel), he also got the story past the censors. Mother Goddamn became Mother Gin Sling, and her brothel was transformed into a gambling casino. In the play, she took revenge on the British businessman out to close her establishment by addicting his daughter to drugs. All that remained of the drugs in the film version was the girl’s name, Poppy. Instead of drug addiction, she succumbed to the lure of the gambling table and a romance with Gin Sling’s lover, Dr. Omar.
Poppy was played by rising star Gene Tierney, who was particularly happy that her new husband, Oleg Cassini, had been hired to provide her gowns. Her father was played by stage and screen veteran Walter Huston.
Omar, a “Doctor of Nothing” (Victor Mature, in one of his first film roles)
Madame Gin Sling hosts a Chinese New Years dinner where she manipulates her guests like pawns.
She entertains her male guests with captive white slaves.
Controversy was nothing new to playwright Colton, who had scandalized London and Broadway stages with Rain, his adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s famous story about a South Seas trollop. Two years later, he went even further with The Shanghai Gesture, a tale of murder and mayhem in a Chinese bordello presided over by the diabolical Mother Goddamn. When Hollywood started censoring its own films in the ’20s under the guidance of Will Hays, both of Colton’s plays were high on the list of properties too hot for the screen. Over the years, Hays turned down 30 different treatments of the story, even as other forbidden properties were cleaned up to fit the Production Code.
Despite her prominent billing in The Shanghai Gesture, Ouspenskaya has no lines. Rumors at the time suggested that her dialogue was cut when preview audiences roared at the thought of a Chinese maid with a broad Russian accent.
The most fascinating member of the film’s fascinating cast, however, was Ona Munson, who had her last shot at stardom playing Mother Gin Sling. The skinny, freckled blonde was best known for her role as Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind (1939), another character she created through her sheer acting presence and liberal applications of makeup. For The Shanghai Gesture, she also had the benefit of a series of outlandish headdresses, the most lavish anyone had put on screen since von Sternberg’s films with Dietrich. Off-screen, Munson was a shy young woman, driven by her thirst for success and love. Although married three times, she also maintained a secret lesbian love life and, like the film’s cinematographer, Paul Ivano, had gotten an early start as the protege/lover of Russian stage star Nazimova. Since then, she had enjoyed a lengthy affair with writer Mercedes de Acosta and a briefer fling, some biographers suggest, with Dietrich. Tormented by her failure to achieve stardom and her unhappy love life, she would commit suicide in 1955.