Shanghai Gesture (1941); Dir. Josef von Sternberg

A very strange movie, corrupt and bleak and fantastical, with a glacial pace, and phenomenal crowd scenes in a giant Shanghai casino (with the awesome Marcel Dalio again playing a croupier, as he did in Casablanca), Shanghai Gesture features Ona Munson (a dead ringer for Marlene Dietrich here, von Sternberg’s muse, and most familiar to modern-day audiences because of her role as Belle in Gone With the Wind) as “Mother Gin Sling”, a Shanghai casino-owner, and goddess of the Chinese underworld. I adore her performance beyond measure, but more than that, I cannot get enough of her costumes and hair pieces. It’s distracting at first, but then I got used to it; It’s a deadly serious movie, with a big secret revealed at the end to rival the one in Chinatown, and the pace only adds to the feeling that all of this is serious business. However, there would still be moments when she was having big dramatic monologues (At one point, she spits, with great bitterness and pride, “I …. am Mother GIN SLING“. Of course you are, Ona) and suddenly I would remember the damn get-up she was wearing and burst out laughing, and then have to rewind to catch the missed dialogue. Hazel Rogers was the wig-maker for the picture, and I can only imagine her glee in getting assigned to this project, where she could let herself go hog-wild. Victor Mature, Walter Huston, Gene Tierney, also star, and the chorus girl named Dixie is played by Phyllis Brooks, an adorable wise-cracking blonde I want to write more about … but for now, I will leave you with …

The hair-pieces of MOTHER. GIN SLING.


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6 Responses to Shanghai Gesture (1941); Dir. Josef von Sternberg

  1. tracey says:

    The Medusa one is killing me! The other ones are like Christmas ribbon exploding on her head.

    They are simultaneously cool and insane.

  2. red says:

    I know – aren’t they unbelievable??

    To see her spout off serious deadly dialogue in that get-up (and she’s terrific) is so bizarre and awesome.

    I AM MOTHER GUN SLING.

  3. tracey says:

    But how do you have a serious discussion with Mother Gin Sling? How?? Does she expect people to comment on her exploding hair or just accept it, no biggie?

    Her hairdo actually gives me social anxiety.

  4. red says:

    People literally cower in fear when Mother Gun Sling walks in the room. I don’t blame them.

  5. Bruce Reid says:

    First time through I was on the fence about Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, until the celebration at the Chinese theater, with its boxy tiers of mezzanines designed less for sightlines to the stage than as a spiraling pit, a shaft to corral the decadence below in its own stifling hothouse. Which was so clearly a lift from Shanghai Gesture that the chance to taste a little of Sternberg in color, and actually spending the money he was inaccurately accused of lavishing on his films, made me eternally grateful Scorsese was able to get his passion project off the ground, however fumblingly.

    Had Diaz’s hair been a fraction so imposing as Munson’s, I’d certainly have been on board from her first appearance.

  6. red says:

    Bruce!! I hadn’t made that connection with Gangs of New York – of course that was lifted from Shanghai Gesture. I was amazed by that sequence myself in Gangs, and there are some wide panning shots in Sternberg’s film – starting from high up, going in low on Marcel Dalio – where you really can see that this is really happening: it’s not stock footage, or some cheeseball set used a million times. It was an incredible space. And the extras were really well chosen – international-looking, not your basic Hollywood back-lot hopeful-starlets extras. I love how in the opening credits, there’s a screen giving credit to the HOLLYWOOD EXTRAS – with a little paragraph following about how they don’t work for glory or money, but work very hard all day long to help make the movie, blah blah … It was funny, I’d never seen an opening credit like that before, but then when I saw those casino scenes, it made sense that that title screen would be added. There are so many people in those shots at one time. Must have been hell to organize.

    I loved how the money from the roulette and blackjack tables is placed in a dangling basket and then hoisted far far up to the office on the top tier. It’s just an amazingly conceived space.

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