Review: Josef von Sternberg’s “The Shanghai Gesture,” Starring Gene Tierney and Victor Mature

Gene Tierney, Victor Mature, and Phyllis Brooks in
Gene Tierney, Victor Mature, and Phyllis Brooks in "The Shanghai Gesture"

Austrian director Josef von Sternberg began his Hollywood career in 1930 with a number of racy hit vehicles starring Marlene Dietrich at Paramount, like Morocco and Shanghai Express. A decade later, Sternberg and Dietrich had parted ways, and following a nervous breakdown, Sternberg’s career was essentially over. Then, however, came the arrival of Sternberg’s old friend Arnold Pressburger, an Austrian producer attempting to establish himself in Hollywood after escaping the Nazis in Europe.

“I took on Shanghai Gesture to help a friend secure a foothold in a land in which he was a stranger,” Sternberg wrote in his autobiography1. They certainly chose an interesting project for such a pivotal moment in both of their careers: John Colton’s play had been controversial since it appeared onstage in the twenties, and his story of a Chinese brothel was  repeatedly turned down for decades by film censors. Yet it was somehow Sternberg who got the play past the production code, working with writers Geza Herczeg and Jules Furthman to significantly transform the story.

Mother Gin Sling (Ona Munson) runs a massive casino in Shanghai, but is informed she’ll have to move her business in several weeks. A wealthy businessman (Walter Huston) has purchased the land her casino resides on, but Gin Sling believes she knows a secret from his past to use against him. Working for her is Omar (Victor Mature), who is caught in a particularly dull love triangle between Poppy (Gene Tierney) and a chorus girl (Phyllis Brooks).

Ona Munson in "The Shanghai Gesture"
Ona Munson in “The Shanghai Gesture”

The movie is obviously marred by copious orientalism and yellowface, but beyond those offenses it’s just a mess, full of appealing production design but tedious plotting. It builds to a climactic dinner party held by Gin Sling, wherein a twist is revealed, but nothing pops as in Sternberg’s earlier works. Some of that likely has to do with the state of his health; he wrote that “most of the film — though this does not show — I directed from a cot, while lying on my back.”2

With this and several other preceding failures, his Hollywood career was coming to an end. “I have little desire to defend these films, or, for that matter, to explain why I didn’t reject them.”3 It would be the last film Sternberg ever finished directing in Hollywood—he completed one other full feature in Japan, and directed parts of films for Howard Hughes. The Shanghai Gesture has some defenders who cite the admirably seedy atmosphere Sternberg conjures up within the casino, but this isn’t enough to overcome the dreary nature of the writing and much of the cast.

Where to Watch

Buy it on DVD

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For More on The Shanghai Gesture

Read the review in The New York Times

References   [ + ]

1. Sternberg, Josef von, Fun in a Chinese Laundry (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1988), p. 278.
2, 3. Sternberg 1988, p. 278.