‘Shanghai – where almost anything can happen…and does !”
It is a rare pleasure, when rummaging in street corner DVD stalls, to ﬁnd a classic old black and white movie, and even rarer to ﬁnd one that actually relates to China, indeed to the city of purchase. However, I did come across ‘Shanghai Gesture’, a lavish 1941 “ﬁlm noir” production directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Gene Tierney, Victor Mature, Ona Munson, Walter Huston and Phyllis Brooks. Although clearly ﬁlmed in Hollywood studios, it does capture the ﬂavour of the city in the 1930s, and also includes some amusing dialogue and vignettes that would not be entirely out of place in Shanghai in 2006.
The critics panned it when it ﬁrst appeared. The New York Times commented, on 26 December 1941, “[the ﬁlm] is so utterly and lavishly pretentious, so persistently opaque and so very badly acted in every leading role but one that its single redeeming feature is that it ﬁnally becomes laughable”. The paper added, “the director was apparently so interested in shooting magniﬁcent scenes that he overlooked the necessity of ﬁtting together a lucid ﬁlm”. One can see their point, but it’s still a lot of fun. And it did receive an Academy Award nominations for “Best Art Direction” (the sets are somewhat over the top) and ‘Best Original Music Score’.
The preamble sets the scene with appropriate drama – “years ago a speck was torn away from the mystery of China and became Shanghai, a distorted mirror of problems that beset the world today, it grew into a refuge for people who wished to live between the lines of laws and customs – modern Tower of Babel…”
The plot revolves around a young woman, Victoria Charteris, also known as Poppy Smith (Gene Tierney), who is out for some excitement in Shanghai, and enters Madame Gin Sling’s casino. Dragon-lady Gin Sling (Ona Munson) worked herself up from poverty to buy the establishment, only to now see it in danger of takeover by Sir Guy Charteris (Charles Huston), a wealthy entrepreneur who has purchased a large area of Shanghai, and is forcing Gin Sling to vacate by the coming Chinese New Year.
Under orders from Gin Sling, who has found out Poppy is Charteris’s daughter, a fez-wearing Doctor Omar (Victor Mature) leads Poppy deeper and deeper into an addiction to gambling and alcohol. Gin Sling, realizing that Charteris was her long-lost husband, who she thinks abandoned her, plans her revenge by inviting Charteris to a Chinese New Year dinner party to expose his past indiscretions. Charteris, however, has a surprise of his own to spring on Gin Sling…but we won’t spoil the denouement for you !
The ﬁlm’s cinematic style is somewhat theatrical – not surprising as it was based on a play of the same name by John Colton – with a limited number of sumptuous sets and scenes, crowds of extras, and one central drama with converging sub-plots. The opening sequence, with a Sikh policeman languidly directing traﬃc in a bustling back street full of rickshaws and coolies, could easily be shot one of old roads in Hongkou today (apart from the fact there was only one car). Madame Gin Sling’s enormous opulent casino, with British, American, and Europeans risking fortunes at roulette or cards, accompanied by a variety of Asian ladies – some clearly representatives of that profession for which Shanghai was notorious in the early years of the 20th century – would probably get a rave review from Thats Shanghai even now. As Po;;y puts it, “It smells so incredibly evil, the others are kindergartens compared to this…anything could happen here…”
But it is some of the dialogue and the Chinese-Western interaction that has clear resonances with life in the modern city. For example, there is a delightful exhange between the British casino accountant, who orders a waiter “Lin Chi, one piece poker deck, chop, chop !”, and receives the reply, “Yes, Mr Hawkins, any refreshment for your guests ?” in perfectly accented English. Similar linguistic arrogance is not uncommon still. There are of course plenty of allusions to Shanghai’s erotic reputation – girls in cages auctioned off to the junkmen at Chinese New Year, for example. But one of the funniest comes from dialogue between Gin Sling’s Chinese Comprador and the English Lady Blessington at the fi nal dinner, the latter being a fairly large (and elderly) woman. Teased by Blessington that he likes European women, the Comprador replies, “they are so intelligent and have such a sense of humour”, while making the traditional “curvy lady” gesture with his hands (it’s funnier on screen…)
Meanwhile, the threatened casino closure is because of “some big speculation in land values”, guesses Gin Sling, adding, “every so often Shanghai decides to clean itself, like a swan in a muddy lake”, and as Sir Guy Charteris gloats in his Bund boardroom, “the city is not averse to the elimination of this quarter”. Foreign developers and city authorities in dispute with local tenants over property rights and prices, disguised as “cleaning up the neighbourhood” – sound familiar ? Poppy catches the same angle in a drunken monologue in the casino – “all that counts here is money anyway” – and also receives a gentle telling off from the Comprador, who reminds her “you’re in China and you’re white – it is not good for us to see you like this – you’d bring discredit to your race”. Don’t get trashed in front of the locals, chaps…it’s bad form. Even Sir Guy’s directions to his rickshaw man (an enormous mysterious Asiatic Russian who is fact one of Gin Sling’s agents) are the same intersecting road format we would use to a Dazhong taxi driver now – then, “Bubbling Well Road, corner of Gordon Road”, now “Nanjing Xi Lu, Jiangning Lu” – Sir Guy was clearly going to Westgate Mall… When the fi lm fi rst aired in New York at the end of December 1941, the international concessions in Shanghai had just been invaded by Japan, ending the city’s hedonistic years for ever. But look out for Shanghai Gesture at your local DVD stall, and enjoy an unusual treat.