Movie Review: The Shanghai Gesture (1941)
I assumed they were trying to do “Casablanca” in Asia: desperate refugees in a lawless, international city, with one eponymous establishment at the center, where the roulette wheel spins constantly and the winner is announced by a French croupier. And this guy looked exactly like the croupier in “Casablanca.” Because, oops, he was: Marcel Dalio, the Jean Renoir staple who fled Nazi-occupied Europe for bit parts in Hollywood.
As with Rick in “Casablanca,” we keep hearing about the owner, Madam Gin Sling, before seeing her. Unlike with Rick, it’s a bit of a disappointment. She’s another white actress (Ona Munson of Portland, Oregon) in Oriental makeup; a bland Dragon Lady. Like Rick, she confronts a past love who abandoned her. Unlike Rick, her feelings are unambiguous and thus uninteresting. She’s just out for revenge. We see her constantly corrupt the innocent rather than, as with Rick, rescuing them against his better judgment. If anything, with her victims, we get whiffs of director Josef von Sternberg’s earlier great film “The Blue Angel”: that paralysis when you’ve sunk so far you can never get out.
She never gets in a good line, either. No “Of all the gin joints...” or “I remember every detail: The Germans wore gray, you wore blue” or “I was misinformed” or “I never plan that far ahead” or “There are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade,” or ...
Stop me any time.
Two plotlines converged in a Hollywood
Mine isn’t exactly an original thought, by the way. Many see parallels between the films:
- “...like Casablanca on drugs”
- “...like a twisted version of...”
- “...like the evil twin of...”
But my initial assumption was wrong: “The Shanghai Gesture” wasn’t copying “Casablanca” because it predates “Casablanca” by a year—Jan. 1942 vs. Jan. ’43 release—while its successful stage version in 1926 predates the unproduced “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” by a decade and a half.
Which makes me wonder if “Casablanca” was an attempt to remake “Shanghai Gesture.”
Instead of fighting to flee to Lisbon, everyone here is fighting to stay in Shanghai. The first one we see doing this is Dixie, the chorus girl (Idaho’s Phyllis Brooks, laying on a thick Brooklyn accent and attitude), who’s being rousted by cops until Mother Gin Sling’s right-hand man, Dr. Omar (Victor Mature), greases palms. After that, we never see her outside of Madame Gin Sling’s. In a world less controlled by Joseph Breen, her new profession, the oldest, would’ve been obvious, but here it’s fudged. Plus she never seems worse for wear. She never loses her gum-cracking ways.
The main person fighting to stay is Madame Gin Sling herself. Her casino is in the international area where the money is, but a British developer, Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), has purchased a large swath of it so she’s getting the boot to the Chinese side. Determined to stay, she asks her subordinates to find out more about Sir Guy.
That’s one plotline. The other involves a young woman named Poppy (Gene Tierney, stunning), who shows up at Gin Sling’s, becomes enamored of Dr. Omar and the delicious evil she feels in the place, then becomes corrupted. One minute she says she can stop gambling whenever she wants, the next she’s losing everything at the roulette wheel. She descends down into it like it’s the ninth circle of hell. It's filmed that way, too.
The two plotlines converge, sadly. Poppy turns out to be the daughter of Sir Guy. Oh, and Sir Guy is also the former lover of both Dixie and Madame Gin Sling. The Madame says 20 years earlier he abandoned her and stole from her and broke her heart; he made her the hardhearted creature she is today. Except he says he didn’t do these things. The money is still there, he says.
Oh, and Poppy, whom she corrupted, isn’t just his daughter; she’s hers, too.
How does Madame Gin Sling react to this? Does she feel remorse? For herself and the daughter she never knew? Got me. Hollywood keeps her inscrutable. To go with all the “likees” bandied about in the film—mostly by foreigners.
Shanghaied by Breen
So why, given the cast and the director and the “Casablanca”-like storyline, does it all fall flat? It’s not just the crossing plotlines. It’s that nobody feels anything. They’re all dead-eyed. There’s no tragedy here because we don’t see or feel what was lost.
Not even with Poppy. She begins the film a glossy girl enamored of bad things, and she ends it supposedly totally corrupted. Except instead of projecting the horror of it all (see Emil Jannings, “Blue Angel”), she simply seems a brat. It’s kind of absurd. And it gets more so when, in the great confrontation scene, Sir Guy more or less throws up his hands and lets Madame Gin Sling handle Poppy. Which she does for about 30 seconds. Then she shoots Poppy dead. Yes, you read that right. From outside, Sir Guy hears and senses this brutal act. At which point, Madame’s “Coolie” (Mike Mazurki) asks him, “You likee Chinese New Year?” And that’s the end.
Supposedly the Code of Conduct boys demanded more than 20 changes to the script before they’d give their stamp of approval: Originally, according to Wiki:
- the story was set in a brothel
- “Mother Gin-Sling” was named “Mother Goddamn”
- instead of European finishing schools, Poppy was raised in mom’s whorehouse
Which means Gin Sling knew about the daughter, etc. Who knows what the movie might’ve been in less prudish times.
Final thought: The word “Shanghai” was a hugely popular title trope in Hollywood in the 1930s. From a brief IMDb search: The Ship from Shanghai (1930), East of Shanghai (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Shanghai Madness (1933), Shanghai (1935), Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935), Daughter of Shanghai (1937), West of Shanghai (1937), Exiled to Shanghai (1937), Shadows Over Shanghai (1938), Incident in Shanghai (1938), and North of Shanghai (1939). Apparently we likeed.