The Shanghai Gesture

The Shanghai Gesture is a 1941 American film noir directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Victor Mature, and Ona Munson. It is based on a Broadway play of the same name by John Colton, which was adapted for the screen by Sternberg and produced by Arnold Pressburger for United Artists. It was the last Hollywood film Sternberg ever completed: Howard Hughes fired him halfway through production of Macao in 1951, as well as from Jet Pilot in 1957.

The Shanghai Gesture
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJosef von Sternberg
Produced byArnold Pressburger
Screenplay byJosef von Sternberg
Geza Herczeg
Jules Furthman
Based onthe play The Shanghai Gesture
by John Colton
StarringGene Tierney
Walter Huston
Victor Mature
Ona Munson
Music byRichard Hageman
CinematographyPaul Ivano
Edited bySam Winston
Arnold Pressburger Films
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
Running time
99 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1.1 million (US rentals)[1]

Boris Leven received an Academy Award nomination for Best Art Direction, while Richard Hageman was nominated for Best Original Music Score.[2]


Gigolo "Doctor" Omar (Victor Mature) bribes the Shanghai police not to jail the broke American showgirl Dixie Pomeroy (Phyllis Brooks); he invites her to seek a job at the casino owned by Dragon-lady "Mother" Gin Sling (Ona Munson), his boss.

In the casino, Omar attracts the attention of a beautiful, privileged young woman (Gene Tierney), fresh from a European finishing school. She is out for some excitement. When asked, she gives her name as "Poppy" Smith.

Meanwhile, Gin Sling is informed that she must move her establishment to the much less desirable Chinese sector. She is given five or six weeks, until Chinese New Year, to comply. Gin Sling is confident that she can thwart this threat to her livelihood, and orders her minions to find out everything they can about the man behind it, Englishman Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), a wealthy entrepreneur who has purchased a large area of Shanghai that contains her gambling parlor. Dixie proves to be an unexpected source of information; Charteris had taken her out to dinner a number of times, before dumping her to avoid her meeting his newly arrived daughter, Poppy, whose real name is Victoria Charteris. From Dixie's description, Gin Sling realizes Charteris is someone from her past.

Meanwhile, Poppy falls in love with Omar and becomes addicted to gambling and alcohol. Though the spoiled woman is openly contemptuous of the casino owner, Gin Sling allows her credit to cover her ever-growing losses.

Gin Sling invites Charteris and other important dignitaries to a Chinese New Year dinner party. Charteris at first declines, but then curiosity gets the better of him. At the dinner, she exposes his disgraceful past. Charteris, then calling himself Victor Dawson, had married her. One day, he abandoned her, taking her inheritance, leaving her destitute and alone. Thinking her baby had died and forced to do whatever she had to in order to survive, she wandered from place to place, until she reached Shanghai. There, Percival Howe had faith in her and backed her financially, allowing her to work her way up to her current position.

To cap her revenge, she has Victoria brought in. Victoria openly flaunts her attraction to Omar and ridicules her father. As Charteris takes his wayward daughter out, he tells Van Elst privately to come to his office the next morning to pick up a £20,000 check for Gin Sling and tell her "the funds she claims I took are, and always have been in an account in her name" in a north China bank.

Despite hearing this, Victoria defies him and goes back inside where the other guests have left. When he tries to retrieve her, he is confronted by Gin Sling. He then reveals that their baby had been found alive and put in a hospital where Charteris found her and brought her up far from China. Victoria is Gin Sling's own daughter.

Gin Sling then tries to talk to Victoria alone, revealing that she is her mother, but when the young woman continues insulting her, Gin Sling shoots her dead. The Dragon Lady then remarks to Howe that this is something she cannot bribe her way out of. The muscular coolie, standing outside with Charteris, delivers the bitingly ironic last line "you likee Chinese New Year?" as Charteris realizes what has happened.



There were several attempts to turn the play into a film in the 1930s, one of them by Cecil B. DeMille, and another in the early 1930s by Edward Small at United Artists.[3] By 1940, it was estimated there had been 32 previous attempts to film the play. Among the changes made to appease the censor was replacing the Japanese character of Prince Oshima with Dr Omar to avoid depicting miscegenation.[4]

Filming started on August 11, 1941.[5]

Unusual for the time in the listing of actors in the opening credits is an ending title card honoring the extras reading, "And 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."

Keye Luke painted the mural that is displayed in the casino.


Film critic Dennis Schwartz gave the film a positive review, writing, "Josef von Sternberg's (The Scarlet Empress/The Blue Angel/The Devil is a Woman) last great Hollywood film is based on a 1925 play by John Colton that required over 30 revisions ordered by the Breen Office censors before it was deemed acceptable. In one unreleased censored version, attributed to writer Jules Furthman, the blemished noirish character named Mother Gin Sling is instead named Mother Goddamn and runs a brothel instead of a casino. What remains from all the cuts is the surreal baroque setting--a gesture to the descent of mankind into the bowels of the earth--a casino designed like Dante's Inferno. Despite the forced changes, this is still a delirious masterpiece of decadence and sexual depravity that surrounds itself with Eastern motifs that are meant to mystify rather than enlighten."[6]

Variety disagreed, describing it as "a rather dull and hazy drama of the Orient."[7] "Victor Mature, as the matter-of-fact Arab despoiler of Tierney’s honor, provides a standout performance. Huston’s abilities are lost in the jumble, while Munson cannot penetrate the mask-like makeup arranged for her characterization."[7]

Oleg Cassini later said "Both Gene and I were hopeful," about the movie. "A prestigious director, a good cast... perhaps this would lead to other opportunities. But the film was an overwrought turkey destroyed by the critics, who gave Gene her first bad reviews. My costumes were not even mentioned in passing."[8]


  1. "101 Pix Gross in Millions". Variety. January 6, 1943. p. 58.
  2. "Academy Awards Search". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
  3. "Prize Ring Comedy Goes Into Work at Early Date at U.A.". The Washington Post. May 28, 1933.
  4. Thomas Brady (September 28, 1941). "Keeping The 'Gesture' Inoffensive". The New York Times.
  5. Douglas W. Churchill (July 16, 1941). "Screen News Here And In Hollywood: Gene Tierney to Play Role of Poppy in 'Shanghai Gesture' for United Artists ...". The New York Times.
  6. Schwartz, Dennis. Ozus' World Movie Reviews, February 19, 2005; accessed July 10, 2013.
  7. "The Shanghai Gesture". Variety. December 31, 1941.
  8. McClelland, Doug (1989). Hollywood Talks Turkey - The Screen's Greatest Flops. Starbrite.
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