Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Medusae of Asia vs. Old Testament Huston: THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (1941), RAIN (1932)

Pre-code neo-Jacobean Tragedy's final venomous wheeze. THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (1941) sinks its cobra fangs deep into the mongoose of censorship, self-abasement, and social taboo, to puncture wells of buried simmering black sins that the Breen Office had been keeping a lid on for years. They demanded over 30 script revisions and it's still mighty sleazy! Based on a play by John Colton, GESTURE asks 1941 America to pretend Shanghai wasn't then locked in a death struggle with the Japanese--let's not get too involved - we're neutral! was the Hollywood m.o. of the hour. But the attack on Pearl Harbor was on its way.... and Hollywood exotica would never be the same again.

Directed by the great Josef von Sternberg and full of all his trademark visuals, it stars Marlene Dietrich's old 'sewing circle' pal, Ona Munsen (1) as a Terry and the Pirates-style dragon lady named Mother Gin-Sling, owner of a Shanghai casino structured like the rings of Dante's inferno. As the roulette wheel spins so, too, the wheel of degradation: Gigolo-ing, gold-digging, rickshaws through festival throngs, degraded murder, sleazy drug addiction, alcohol addiction, gambling addiction, white slavery, Mike Mazurki, suicide, elaborate revenge, hookah smoking, and Von Sternberg's super masochist sublimation power, though thanks to the Breen Office, the long-term effect of the Depression, and the rumblings of another war, that power was significantly reduced in wattage.

More than politics, though, SHANGHAI GESTURE is about the lack of Dietrich. No actress can be both imperious matriarch and bespoiled hottie other than "she." Without a star of major elusive persona-sliding range, these exotica fantasias can't sizzle properly: RAIN would be a mere drizzle without Joan Crawford; RED DUST (1932) on the other hand needs both Mary Astor in the rain and Jean Harlow in the rain barrel; THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1934) has both Myrna Loy urging on the whipping, and also Karen Morely endangering the western world through soft-spotted carelessness, etc. Josef von Sternberg's whole oeuvre would be just chiaroscuro exotica if not for the enigmatic Marlene; and THE SHANGHAI GESTURE (1941) would have been perfect for Dietrich--she was even the right age. Did he hope to lure her back? I don't recall and I lost my copy of his autobiography, NOTES FROM A CHINESE LAUNDRY.

Munson, with headgear ostentatious enough for a Flo Ziegfeld's Mythology Revue, has a commanding presence but she can't infuse a single glance or wave with enigmatic playfulness and subversive innuendo, or radiate hypnotized cobra calm like Dietrich. She can convey a kind of Gale Sondergaard regality but that's only part of what makes a great dragon lady. Munson has some unique assets, like a coke-drip sonorous jubilance in her voice, but no matter how sublimely her balance of camp and dramaturgy, her headgear is what we remember. It screams camp diva, or at least sultry goddess; the last thing she should do is underplay her imperious grandeur. This is isn't CHU CHIN CHOW, baby!

Munson split our mortal plane in '55 with a suicide note that read "This is the only way I know to be free again... Please don't follow me."

Classic Munson.

The other players of this little comedy, meanwhile, seethe and stagger about the casino's few sets but never quite find a frequency they can share: Gene Tierney, especially--beautiful though she may be--pouts so sourly as spoiled rich girl Poppy we wonder how Victor Mature (as pimp-procurer, Dr. Omar) can put up with her, let alone waste time trying to seduce her with Song of Solomon quotes and lame 'orientalist' lines like: "My mother was half-French and the other half was lost in the dust of time, so I am related to all the Earth, and nothing that's human is foreign to me." As for the other cast: Maria Ouspenskaya hovers below decks as Mother Gin's mute assistant; Eric Blore is the casino's accountant; Mike Mazurki a 'coolie' rickshaw spy (there's no real Chinese actors in the film, other than extras); Michael Dalmatoff a Russian expat bartender; Ivan Lebedeff, about to blow his own brains out as an unlucky Russian expat gambler... and, looming on the horizon: Walter Huston as the great white businessman fixing to evict Mother Gin-Sling as he's bought her casino's whole neighborhood out from under her as part of a massive urban development project.

With eyes calmly alight, Mother Gin-Sling encourages our confidence that she has a plan to blast Huston's patriarch off his pedestal, but it all depends on fate's fickle finger dialing her New Years dinner party into a third act denouement of MADAME BUTTERFLY self-immolation. Bad drugs, drink, gambling, and sexual jealousy, and the now debauched Poppy's abrasive petulance make up the difference. She's his daughter!

Taken as a whole, GESTURE is not up to von Sternberg's Dietrich collaborations at Paramount, but part of this could be the relative blurriness of the 'they did what they could' restoration, and the 'they got away with what they could' limits of the code. Par of it is also the attempt to have myriad threads running through instead of focusing on one character, the way Marlene was the focus in JVonS's earlier work. In their still-ephemeral and brilliant (pre-code) collaborations, he conjured a very vivid feeling of the street in relation to the interiors, to each room. In GESTURE, we have to take his word for it that the bar and the gaming wheel are even on the same sound stage let alone the same building.

There are some good crowded Shanghai street scenes early on though, and the big Chinese New Year celebration is a writhing cacophony of rickshaws, costumes, dragons, and peddlers crammed together beautifully, but again they never feel connected to the casino nor the casino connected to its adjacent rooms and bars. Von Sternberg sheathes Munson in exotic murals painted by Keye Luke, who--though Chinese--doesn't appear. A litany of minor irritations like that keep adding up. Tierney's inability to separate playing a bitch with being a bitch is the biggest liability. It's as if all the drugs and booze and sex were just keeping her eternally hungover and cranky rather than turning her into a drug addict wonton like the script calls for. If you've ever dated a girl so gorgeous you stick around even though she's mean, irritating, boring, crabby, manipulative, petulant and violent, then you may shudder in sad recognition. I know I did. And I don't come to von Sternberg for that kind of shudder.

She does look beautiful, though:

That said, slowness and pointless bits of business are the side effects of von Sternberg's style--every character is always moving towards or away from sex or death.  There's very few daytime exterior shots and only one bit of Shanghai stock footage letting us know that it might seem like midnight in the casino ("Never Closes" is their motto) but it's actually a weekday morning and right outside poor bastards are shuffling to and from their petty 9-5 jobs while inside the wheel spins on. I used to love that in the old days, partying all night at a club or someone's loft and staggering out to find the sun is up and fresh-scrubbed bright-eyed people going to work etc. Me in opaque shades being carried by a guy on either side of me so I don't fall over while aghast commuters file past. I loved that shit!

I'm rambling again, so that would seem to conclude the tour, so what of the antagonist? What of the... Huston?

Maybe it's his terse delivery and rigid military posture, his dart-like movements, or the way he kind of leans back and tenses up as if ready to hurl himself across a table at his quarry, his vowels shortening as if on a count down to blast-off, but Huston always excelled as inflexible moralist captains of industry, the kind never hip to their own fatal flaws. He was a cop fond of beating the truth out of suspects in BEAST OF THE CITY; a tough-ass by-the-book warden in CRIMINAL CODE; a King Lear-ish rancher in THE FURIES; and a sadistic crippled ivory trader in KONGO. Just as the new testament patriarchal signifier would become embodied by Spencer Tracy, Huston embodies the Old Testament wrath and vengeance.

I know it's a side note, but Tracy never worked with Howard Hawks, and I can see why: Hawks had a code, and it had nothing whatever to do with following the letter of the law or mistaking sanctimoniousness and sentimentality for truth and justice. Huston's persona, unlike Tracy's (that needs a Mr. Hyde potion to slip its Rock of Gibraltar steadfastness) mistakes greed as universal benevolence in the grand Fox News tradition. For example, in KONGO, he ruthlessly intimidates tribes of Congolese with juju magic tricks. Spencer might do similar things, but would think he was the good guy doing it, because he'd have a bible instead of a feathery headdress. Tracy would do it with a dopey smirk meant to win a Tess Trueheart; Huston had no interest in being seen as good or noble, only in achieving his grand design, a kind of upper management application of governmentally sanctioned force very in tune with the pre-code era, when the future survival of organized human civilization was still iffy. And unlike Tracy, Huston often faces tragic realizations over what damage his inflexibility hath wrought, like the censor finally realizing he's cut off his own genitals. Surely his son John drew on that persona for his own quintessential titan of industry in CHINATOWN.

So it's this paragon of vengeance Huston who goes up against Mother Gin-Sling at a climactic "Chinee New Year" dinner party. SPOILER ALERT! She turns out to be Huston's ex-wife, painting him the lurid portrait of her grim life being abducted and sold to a 'pleasure boat,' and having pebbles sewn into the bottoms of her feet after she tried to run away (and these details survived the 30 rewrites!) And she even gives a New Years' eve floor show out in the street in front of the casino, of girls being hauled up in cages as a reminder of the old white slavery auctions. And that survived the rewrites too! Yikes... I guess objectification and dehumanization of (non-white) women is always OK by the code (as long as the girls playing the nonwhite women are white, of course).

Chinee New Year, celebrating five thousand years of sex slavery
a ghoulish girl and a bottle of booze cures all ills
RAIN (1931) finds Huston facing the exact same problem, trying to get a very young Joan Crawford out of tropical prostitution, but you know how it is. Once she learns he's arranged to haul her back from the tropics to stand trial (these expat prostitutes are always on the lam after murdering either a violent john or pimp, but it was in self-defense!) she gets religion and he finds her, finally, attractive.

There's a great scene in RAIN I was lucky enough to see by total chance while tripping one rainy afternoon, wherein Joan's angry, crying, desperate as hell, trying to escape up a set of stairs while Huston stands at the bottom, reciting the lord's prayer over and over again while she screams and yells and then starts moaning and sobbing in despair at the thought of going back to the states and certain trial or execution. I never liked Joan until I saw this scene, on shrooms, watching as she went slowly in perfect modulation during the long single take, from imperiously demanding he leave her alone, to begging for mercy, to pleading for her life, to sobbing in despair, to finally joining him in his prayer. Somewhere along the line their two voices entrain, and she stands up, super calm, walks down the stairs, ready to go. In her darkest hour, she finds the lord, through chant, and it's all right there in that long twisted scene on the stairs.

Maybe it was the mushrooms that afternoon but I've felt, ever since that damp and dismal afternoon, that RAIN is a horror movie about the dangers of religion and spirituality. With her thick early sound era make-up, Crawford's Sadie Thomson has a ghoulish obscene demeanor, the sister to Lugosi in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE and Irving Pichel in DRACULA'S DAUGHTER; they could all share a black lipstick. And Huston is her Van Helsing, but thanks to being swamped in at a remote midway station on his way to the interior to convert savages he takes it as his duty to convert her back from vampirism, only to turn bloodsucker himself.

As Marlene said in MOROCCO, "there's a Foreign Legion of women, too."

Kongo (1932)
But that's the thing, if there's an entrainment to the frequency of the lord, there's an entrainment of the jungle, too. And it entrains Huston's Henry Davidson just as the lord's doctrine entrains Sadie. Huston clearly doesn't have her interest at heart, but is just adhering to the letter of the law out of a kind of continual self-denial agitated by the endless rain, the way senators campaign against gay rights and then go have a men's room tryst 'for research.'

Just how many movies had women of adventure expatriating in some remote tropical outpost, either servicing the local sailors, or just drinking with the other refugees? My friend, they are countless. And they all erupted from five important socio-political rubrics pre-code fans know well:

1. Miscegenation -  It's important to remember that censors weren't just patriarchal prudes, they were racist. Being 'pre-code' never meant there was no censorship, just less 'clear' rules of conduct: sex outside wedlock between two white people could occur if the woman was a divorcee or widow and hence no longer needed to save her honor, or if the tryst was occurring in the land of savages--Africa, the tropics, Asia-- where the heat and the limited amount of white male options meant societal norms might melt away if the moment was right. Usually the only thing remotely like a white male authority figure is a drunk or junkie priest or doctor or ship's captain under some sort of fever or addiction, to further break down the veneer of modern civilization so that morality can't help but buckle (he's in no shape to marry them or divorce her from her ineffectual husband).

MGM was the worst for using fear of miscegenation to distract censors so that white-on-white adultery, prostitution and premarital trysting could sneak in as a lesser of two evils, which is a trick still used on racist parents by manipulative white girls to this day!

2. Maugham -Just advertising your film as about some (white) hottie taking it on the lam to the tropics, hooking up with a (white) junkie doctor and/or committing murder means you want the public to associate it W. Somerset Maugham, the E.L. James of the 30s. Any film that wanted to have 'steam' just cherry picked plot points from his RAIN, SEVENTH VEIL, THE NARROW CORNER and THE LETTER. For awhile there, everywhere you looked were boorish doctors who'd rather treat cholera than have sex with their wives; compromising letters read aloud in court; British colonials with stiff upper lips awash in gossip; opium addicted doctors making wry comments from their perch in the back of the ship lounge; wicker fans or gin and tonics in the hands of insouciant bachelor bounders facing down dull husband's pistols; violent rainstorms; rickety steamship passages; shirtless pirates; harumphing magistrates; grinning moron native servants; and dull hypocritical protestant missionaries. See: MANDALAY, ROAD TO SINGAPORE, PRIVILEGE, MOROCCO, WHITE WOMAN, THE KEY, THE BARBARIAN, FRIENDS AND LOVERS, SHANGHAI EXPRESS, the list is endless, and thank god, or Maugham, for it.

3. Prohibition - Only America could be crazy enough to try to enforce such a law, so voyaging abroad, where liquor didn't taste like Turpentine and cost a fortune became double sexy, like going to Amsterdam or Colorado today.

4. Exchange Rates: In the Post-WWI economy, the dollar went farther overseas, so one could live the high life in Europe on a middle class pittance in the US, and the kingly life in the tropics, at least that was the fantasy in the minds of the hungry Depression-era masses.

5 Exotica - There would still be flak from minority groups, but the Great War had forced us to get social; we came back interested in the art and cultures of far-off lands, riffing off the aesthetics of those regions, creating a picture of the 'other' as kinky, lurid, savage, totally class-conscious but with exquisite and bizarre taste.

And the Brits always loved Egypt.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad I found your wonderful blog. I can quote Marlene too:
    "It took a lot of men to earn me the name Shanghai Lily"


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