Wednesday, July 17, 2013


Shanghai is a bustling city of riches, vice, and decadence for those, we are told, "who wish to live between the lines of laws and customs." The heart of the city is Mother Gin Sling's casino, a magnificent pleasure palace in white, designed like Dante's circles of Hell, with a gaming table in a pit at the center where huge sums of money are won and lost every night. We first meet Dixie, a brassy blonde showgirl from Brooklyn stranded in the city. She is taken in by the dusky, passive Doctor Omar—he says he is a doctor of nothing, and others call him the poet laureate of Shanghai, though all the poetry he spouts is from Omar Khayyam—who gets her a job at the casino, though what exactly she does aside from wearing sexy dresses and making wisecracks is never made clear. Next we meet another newcomer to Shanghai, a dark exotic young woman who gives her name as Poppy Smith; she is more fragile than Dixie, but she's got money and a Russian man squiring her around town. She thinks the casino smells evil but it fascinated by it and by Omar. That night, Mother Gin Sling gets the bad news that she will have to shut down her establishment; it's part of a large lot of land bought by rich speculator Sir Guy Charteris. Realizing she cannot fight the deal, she instead tries digging up dirt on Charteris and discovers two interesting items: Poppy is his daughter (real name Victoria), and Charteris is actually a man named Dawson who was briefly married to Mother Gin Sling in her youth and who treated her badly. Mother plots to reduce Poppy to a shell of her former self by getting her hooked on drinking and gambling, and then on the casino's final night, the eve of Chinese New Year, she'll unveil the spectacle of Victoria's ruin to Charteris at a fancy dinner party. Things go as planned, but Charteris has a little secret of his own which casts everything in a different light for Mother.

Based on a notorious stage play, the Production Code people didn't want this movie made at all. In the play, the casino is a brothel, and the name of the main character is Mother Goddam. Lots of changes were made to get this material through the censors, but a strong atmosphere of decadence and corruption remains, and it doesn't take much reading between the lines to figure out what's what. Dixie (Phyllis Brooks) has clearly been hired as a prostitute; Omar (Victor Mature) is completely amoral and pretty much high all the time, on opium I assume; Poppy (Gene Tierney), after Omar is through with her, is certainly drug-addled as well. This film was the last hurrah of Josef von Sternberg, who would certainly have centered this film around Marlene Dietrich if he had made it a few years earlier. Though its stage origins remain obvious, the movie looks great. Long shots of the casino are stuffed with interesting detail—the main credits include an acknowledgement of the unsung extras, and indeed they are crucial in the building of atmosphere. The print I saw wasn't spectacular, but the rich blacks and overexposed whites come through well enough. 

This was an early lead role for Tierney, and while some critics complain that she overacts, I think she was wise to do so here, since her character is such a melodramatic soap-opera type. For the most part, Power barely registers since he has little to do besides look like he's in an opium haze all the time. The rest of the cast is fine, including Walter Huston as Charteris, Eric Blore as the bookkeeper who is on crutches the whole time (someone says to him, "Stop behaving like a disabled flamingo!"), Albert Basserman as a city official, and Mike Mazurki as a bare-chested sinister rickshaw driver. Best of all is Ona Munson, unrecognizable in Asian makeup as Mother Gin Sling (pictured). Her face is usually frozen in a sickly smile, but her voice (you can hear Belle Watling, her character in GONE WITH THE WIND, loud and clear) and mannerisms give full vent to her desires and frustrations. Things end well for no one (except maybe Omar who probably curls back up with his hookah), but the ending has just enough ambiguity to allow us to imagine that not all the guilty parties will pay for their crimes. Not a masterpiece, perhaps, but a must-see for classic-era fans.  [TCM]

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