director Josef von Sternberg
Ouch, racist stereotypes? Ouch.
Maybe that’s not the first takeaway one should have from Josef von Sternberg’s final completed Hollywood film, but it’s hard to ignore. Ona Munson plays “Mother” Gin Sling in Chinese make-up, the film’s pivotal character, a dragon lady femme fatale with fantastic tresses and Clyde Fillmore plays the inscrutable Percival Montgomery Howe, another white actor in stereotypical Chinese dress and make-up. To an odd somewhat lesser extent we also have Victor Mature as Omar, an indefinite Middle Eastern character.
Interestingly, in contrast, the extras of the film, touted in the opening credits as they so rarely are as “…a large cast of “HOLLYWOOD EXTRAS” who without expecting credit or mention stand ready day and night to do their best — and who at their best are more than good enough to deserve mention” are actual people of color, mostly without speaking roles, but yet significantly represented. The idea of Shanghai as this global hub of all peoples but as well of all vices gives a worldly but lurid and highly tinged image of many peoples, a galaxy of period stereotypes, and yet, actual representation as well.
Von Sternberg is a fascinating director, one whom I am growing to like better all the time as I see more of his films. His films exude, even here in 1941 well under the eyes of the Hays Production Code, a keen eye for the darker side of the tracks, more starkly sexualized and oddly explicit even in innuendo and veiled suggestion. While this is his milieu, it’s not one moralized exactly. His characters are vivid and sympathetic.
I sought out The Shanghai Gesture as I’ve been working my way through the films I hadn’t seen from the recent BBC list of best American films. This film seems quite anomalous on that list (though that list is filled with anomalies as much as with shoo-ins). At first blush, it’s a weird and lurid, at times almost surreal film, with these blatantly racist stereotypes in the foreground. But its complexity and strangeness are intoxicating, a weird ride down a rabbit hole crafted by an all-too-forgotten auteur.
I’m already wanting to watch it again.