THE SHANGHAI GESTURE. United Artists, 1941. Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Victor Mature, Ona Munson, Phyllis Brooks, Albert Bassermann, Maria Ouspenskaya, Eric Blore, Marcel Dalia. Screenplay (by von Sternberg and three other writers) from a play of the same name by John Colton (produced in New York in 1926). Cinematography by Paul Ivana. Mural in Mother Gin Sling’s apartment by Keye Luke. Director: Josef von Sternberg. Shown at Cinevent 41, Columbus OH, May 2009.


   If Dante’s Inferno [reviewed here ] literally takes the viewer into the various levels of Hell where damned souls writhe in eternal agony, von Sternberg’s mesmerizing drama set in a gambling casino in Shanghai’s Red Light district takes a metaphorical spin on the nether region that is infinitely more terrifying than the silent film’s version.

   Colton, author of the play on which the film was based, was also the author of Miss Sadie Thompson, which first made it to the screen in 1928 as Rain.

   If the earlier play posed problems for the Hollywood censors in the pre-code era, The Shanghai Gesture was even more problematic, with a central character (Mother Goddam) the proprietor of a notorious establishment, who introduces her daughter (Poppy) to drugs and prostitution as revenge on her English father.

   The result was considered unfilmable in a more lenient Hollywood, and only made it to the screen with a much watered down but still pungent screenplay years after the installation of the restrictive Production Code.


   Ona Munson, who memorably played Belle Watley, an Atlanta madam, in Gone with the Wind, was persuaded with great difficulty by the director to take on a part that, even with the prostitution element eliminated, could not help but remind audiences of her celebrated role.

   Von Sternberg surrounded the newly christened Mother Gin Sling with a first-rate cast, with her daughter played by the young, promising Gene Tierney, her ex-husband by the notable Walter Huston, and a supporting cast of seasoned character actors, some playing against type (as in the case of Eric Blore), others (like Victor Mature, early in his career) etching indelible portraits of the employees and habitues of the gambling house.

   The movie has languished in obscurity in recent years, but with a fair amount of notoriety connected to it. The overhead shots of the gambling den that spirals down like steps toward Hell are brilliantly realized, while the great scene at Mother Gin Sling’s climactic dinner party beginning as an elegantly orchestrated party of revenge, quickly unravels as the revelation of old truths, long buried, leads to the violent, tragic conclusion of this disturbing film.