The ABC's of Film Noir
The ABC's of Film Noir

The Shanghai Gesture (1941) Classic Movie Review 174

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

I've lived by my own ordinances for a long time now, and I intend to disregard all others



Welcome to today’s show, my name is John. As always you can subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast formally known as iTunes or follow the links to social media in the podcast show notes. So please subscribe when you are finished listening. You can also go to to read notes, bios, and other random movie thoughts.

Today’s movie is The Shanghai Gesture (1941). Directed by Josef von Sternberg this little-known Film Noir is a bundle of tension. Walter Huston is at his prime in this film. This is one of the most complex roles I have ever seen Victor Mature undertake. Ona Munson plays the Chinese former prostitute and gambling hall owner to the hilt. But the most amazing part of this film is the transition of Gene Tierney’s character Poppy as she is destroyed by gambling, booze, and jealousy. The physical changes are marked but the actress carries the changes excellently. This film was set in a gambling hall instead of a brothel like in the play. It would have worked a little better if opium was involved. However, they had to work around the censors. The Hays Office had the director make over 30 cuts in the movie.

This move is rated 6.8 on[1] but I believe it should be a lot higher. The film is 100 percent on the Tomatometer and 71 percent audience approval on[2]. However, the film is listed as being released in 1942 on that site.

Variety said “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.[3]

Dennis Schwartz of Ozus’ World Movie Reviews said “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.”[4]



Gene Tierney was amazing as Poppy/Victoria. Tierney was first covered in Episode 91 – Laura (1944).

Maria Ouspenskaya played the old Amah. Of course, we remember her as Belle the werewolf’s mother in The Wolf Man (1941).


Walter Huston was cast in the role of Sir Guy Charteris and I must say he is a tall drink of water. I am used to Walter Huston from Yankee Doodle Dandy (1943) and Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Huston was born in 1883 in Canada. Huston originally studied engineering but loved theater work even though he suffered from stage fright. He married Rhea Gore, the mother of John Huston, in 1905 and returned for a time to engineering. But the call of the stage was too much for him and he returned to theater work in 1909. Huston made his debut on Broadway in 1924. He continued to work on Broadway until the late 1920s when he began acting for the new talkies.

Some of his earliest films were The Virginian (1929) and D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (1930). Other roles during this early period include The Beast of the City (1932), with Jean Harlow. Many people believe it was his greatest role. Other movies include Frank Capra’s American Madness (1932), W. Somerset Maugham’s Rain (1932), basically a remake of Sadie Thompson (1928) with Joan Crawford. He was cast as the President who is taken over by an angel in Gabriel Over the White House (1933).

Huston was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his work in the William Wyler directed Dodsworth (1936). Huston had played this role on Broadway in 1934. He continued to work in films and theater.  He had a very small role as the ship captain that delivered the black bird to Sam Spade’s (Humphrey Bogart) office before dying in the John Huston (his son) directed The Maltese Falcon (1941).

In what is clearly my second favorite role of his, Huston played Mr. Scratch, AKA the Devil in The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). He was great as the smirking trickster and the movie was great with Edward Arnold and Simone Simon. For this role, Huston received another Best Actor Oscar nomination.

Huston was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in the Musical Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Of course, acting, singing, and dancing with James Cagney and Joan Leslie, it’s hard to not be supporting.

Eventually, he made it to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and again he was directed by his son John Huston. I have to say he was amazing in this role as the elderly prospector with his happy gold dance and lifesaving skills. For this film, Walter Huston won the best-supporting-actor Oscar and he richly deserved it. His acceptance speech is often quoted and goes as follows:

“Many years ago…. Many, MANY years ago, I brought up a boy, and I said to him, ‘Son, if you ever become a writer, try to write a good part for your old man sometime. Well, by cracky, that’s what he did!”[5]

Walter died at the age of 67 in 1950. Some relationship notes: he was the Grandfather of Anjelica Huston, John’s daughter. Walter, John, and Anjelica all won Oscars. Walter was in three films directed by his son John: The Maltese Falcon (1941), In This Our Life (1942) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Victor Mature played Doctor Omar, who was basically, a seducer of women for profit. Mature was born in Kentucky in 1913. His father was an Italian tinker and his mother was of Swiss descent. He worked as a butcher supplies salesman and later attended the Kentucky Military Academy. Mature was 6’2”, pretty ripped and had curly black hair. He decided to become an actor and began studying at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Mature’s first movie was The Housekeeper’s Daughter (1939). He made other films like No, No, Nanette (1940) and One Million B.C. (1940) before being called to serve in World War II as part of the Coast Guard. He regularly acted through the 1950’s. His best category was sword and sandal but he hit most genres. His other movies include I Wake Up Screaming (1941), The Shanghai Gesture (1941), My Darling Clementine (1946), Kiss of Death (1947), Cry of the City (1948), Fury at Furnace Creek (1948), Samson and Delilah (1949), classic, Androcles and the Lion (1952), Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), where he allegedly had an affair with swimmer Ester Williams, the very stiff Film Noir The Las Vegas Story (1952), The Robe (1953), classic, Dangerous Mission (1954), set mostly in Glacier National Park, Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), Chief Crazy Horse (1955), Pickup Alley (1957), and Hannibal (1959). Mature retired in the 1960s by popped up in films like the LSD inspired The Monkees’ movie Head (1968). His final film was Firepower (1979). Mature died in 1999.

Ona Munson played bar and gambling den owner, ‘Mother’ Gin Sling. Munson was born in Oregon in 1903. She worked in radio before switching to film in 1928. She worked in a lot of plays on Broadway in the 1930s and 1940s. Within her, 29 credits are two roles for which she is most known. In both of these roles, she played a brothel madam. These are Gone with the Wind (1939) where she played Bell Watling and of course, the other is The Shanghai Gesture (1941), where she played Mother Gin Sling, but was mostly disguised as a gambling hall owner. Plagued by poor health, Munson took her life using sleeping pills in 1955.

Mike Mazurki played an interesting role as the Coolie. Mazurki was born in 1907 in the Astro-Hungarian Empire in what is now Ukraine. Mazurki stood 6 foot five inches tall. He was a professional football player and a wrestler. Mazurki was a very intelligent man that spent almost 50 years playing hulking brutes.

Mazurki’s first film was Gentlemen Jim (1942). Mazurki is perhaps best known for his role as Moose in the Film Noir Murder, My Sweet (1944). Other films include New Orleans Uncensored (1955), a bit in The Buccaneer (1958), Some Like It Hot (1959), Donovan’s Reef (1963) with John Wayne and Lee Marvin, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), Cheyenne Autumn (1964), and tributes like Dick Tracy (1990). Mazurki died at the age of 83 in 1990.


The movie begins and they actually give credit to the extras and there was a lot. The action begins in the town of Shanghai and the text calls it a Tower of Babel that will likely be swallowed up by war. The coolest and most relaxed Sikh ever is directing traffic, most of which is on foot. As an automobile comes down the road, the police are dragging a blonde woman followed by some merchants.

In the car are Doctor Omar (Victor Mature) who is wearing a Fez and gives the impression of being from the Middle East. His companion is the Comprador/Montgomery Howe (Clyde Fillmore) who dresses Chinese. Omar decides the woman is his as he saw her first. Montgomery goes to talk to the police and Omar talks to the woman who is the Chorus Girl/Dixie Palmroy (Phyllis Brooks). She is being arrested for not being able to pay her hotel bill. Montgomery pays everyone off and Dixie leaves in the car with the two men.

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

They take her to Mother Gin Sling’s Casino and Omar says the boss is cold-blooded and will devour her like a dragon. The casino is modeled after Dante’s Inferno with the largest gambling ring on the top and the smaller ring with the most intense gambling at the bottom. They have a jewel appraiser working the money cage. One of the men at the table tries to pawn a ring but it is rejected. He then tries to sell his pistol. They refuse to take the gun. The loot is lifted by a basket to the counting room at the top.

A very beautiful woman, Poppy (Gene Tierney) comes to the bar with her escort (John Abbott). Omar spots her right away. Poppy is bored and looking for excitement. She even says the casino is evil. She loves it and sees Omar across the floor.

Poppy orders a Planter’s Punch from the surly Russian expat bartender. A Planter’s Punch is 2 ounces of rum, some tropical fruit, and other sweet stuff. Omar is pulled from the hunt as the commissioner and some other European men come in. They are seated and Mother Gin Sling is sent for.

A shot is fired as the man that tried to pawn the gun tried to kill himself. A gong sounds and Mother Gin Sling (Ona Munson) makes a bold entrance. She goes to the man Boris that tried to kill himself. She tells the dealer to give him 5,000 in credits and gives his gun back. He kisses her hand. Mother slowly walks to the table where the commissioner and Omar are playing cards. After some time, the commissioner tells Mother that she will have to close down by the Chinese New Year because she is in the International district. They say she can set up again in the Chinese zone. Her landlord has already canceled the lease. The new owner is the Indochina Trading Company. She says she is going nowhere. After the messages are all delivered, the men’s attention turns again to Poppy.

Mother goes to Poppy to introduce the Frenchman from the commissioner’s group to her. Poppy and her escort offer Mother a drink but she refuses. Then Poppy tries to insult Mother’s name who rattles off prostitute names and says even sometimes it can be Poppy. Sting. Mother leaves. She tells her man to find out who Poppy really is. The Frenchman makes a fool of himself with Poppy. Poppy’s real name is Victoria. She sends her escort away.

Dixie is still waiting to be seen.

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

The Frenchman brings Montgomery and Omar over and they are introduced to Poppy. Montgomery says he has five wives and is looking for a sixth. At the name Poppy, he explains that flower has caused a lot of trouble for his family. Omar interrupts for his introduction. Omar charms Poppy with his knowledge of poetry. Omar sets the hook pretty deep in Poppy’s gills as the other men leave. Omar is summoned to Mother.

Mother goes on the offensive. She quickly finds out the man behind the pushout is Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston). She sends her agents out to find the dirt on Sir Guy. She even asks for a picture so she can see her enemy. Just then, Omar comes in with Dixie and she announces that she is an ex-lover of Sir Guy. Very convenient. Mother takes Dixie away for a talk in private. Dixie tells Mother that Sir Guy gave her the heave hoe when his grown daughter came back from her finishing school in Switzerland. Dixie also says that he sometimes reaches for the ceiling with one hand for no reason. Mother snaps around. Mother asks about the color of his eyes.

Sir Guy is meeting with the Anglos that visited the casino about the takeover and development. The phone continues to ring although they repeatedly request not to be disturbed. The caller is identified as Mother Gin Sling. Sir Guy pulls the plug and is sure he can break the local power.

Omar has gotten Poppy to start gambling and she is a big winner. This is her first-time gambling and she says she can stop whenever she wants.

Mother waits outside of Sir Guy’s office to get a look at him. His car and all the taxis are not available. He is forced to take a rickshaw pulled by a large Coolie (Mike Mazurki). He has a shaved head and doesn’t speak. Mother smiles with glee as she and Dixie look on.

Back at the gambling wheel Poppy’s luck has turned bad. She loses all of the money she has won. Boris, the man with the gun, is always at the table when Poppy plays. He bets the opposite of her every time and wins most of the time. Omar convinces her to put up her diamond neckless to keep on gambling. Dixie comes in and she is showing her new gotten wealth.

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

Mother begins planning a Chinese New Year’s party. She makes a prestigious list of guests including Sir Guy. A note is brought in and Poppy is 50,000 maces in debt which are about 1,000 pounds sterling. Mother goes down to interview Poppy for references. Mother gives her 5,000. Boris is defiantly working with Mother. Poppy loses that and borrows 200 more to tip the croupier. 

Mother has wax dolls made of all the party guests. She plans to have Sir Guy sit at the opposite end of the table. Mother authorizes unlimited advances to Poppy. Montgomery says that Mother’s battleplan may not work out as expected. Mother snaps the head off of one of the dolls.

Poppy is still gambling and drinking. She looks rough. Omar is courting Dixie. Poppy is crazy with jealousy.

Sir Guy gets the invitation to the party. He has no intention of going. A rock breaks the window and lands on the floor. Sir Guy goes outside and sees the Coolie holding another rock. Sir Guy has the Coolie brought up. He still won’t speak. Sir Guy says to lock him up but the Coolie says in Russian that no Chinese jail could hold him. Sir Guy is intrigued and decides to go to the party.

Poppy has turned into a sot. She is a complete mess and is making scenes in the casino. Mother tells her that so far, she has only lost paper, not real money. Poppy says she will not be back. She goes to Omar’s and beats on the door. He sits inside calmly reading the paper. She tries every trick to get inside. Finally, with her caterwauling in the hallway, he opens the door and takes her inside. Omar crushes her with his lack of interest.

In the morning, Poppy is called to see her father, Sir Guy. He calls her Victoria. He says she is all he has and he has tried to protect her. He says he has chartered a plane to take her to Singapore. Finally, he shows her a neckless that a man sold to him that morning. It is the one she sold in the casino. She gets on the plane and leaves.

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

The evening of Chinese New Year, there are parades and fireworks. As Sir Guy arrives at the Casino, he asks the Coolie if he likes Chinese New Year. All of the best people are at the party, including the lady that really owns the building. Sir Guy comes in and the party comes to a halt. Sir Guy realizes that Omar works at the casino as he is the man who sold him the neckless. He is happy to see Dixie. The Commissioner is there as well. A gong rings and Mother comes in a hairdo that could be mistaken for Medusa.

At Mother’s side is a very old Amah (Maria Ouspenskaya). An Amah is a nursemaid. They are told to take the seat where their wax figure is located. Sir Guy wonders when he is at the head of the table. Mother has the windows opened by the Coolie. Women are being hoisted up in what Mother says is a mock representation of kidnapping girls to be sold into prostitution. The faces on the girls seem to indicate it is for real.

The Coolie has taken the host position behind Sir Guy. Mother tells how young girls were sold like that not so many years ago to “flower boats.” She says Chinese New Year is a time to repay debts. Mother asks Sir Guy if he had been in China before. He says he has been in the north and asks Mother is she is from the north of China also. She says she washed up on the Shanghai shore and Montgomery helped her. 

The two royals that are there get offended and start to leave. Mother orders them to sit or she will reveal what happened in Rio five years prior. The landlady brays like a jackass. The doll with the broken head is for a young woman that is being sobered up. The landlady tries to leave and Mother orders her to sit.

Sir Guy gets up and says unlike the rest of the guest, she has nothing that can make him stay. She calls him Mr. Dawson and says the dinner was given in his honor. He asks who she is and Mother says don’t you recognize me. Mother claps her hands and all of the servants leave except the old Amah. Finally, Sir Guy looks and says he can’t know her because that girl is dead.

Mother says yes that girl is dead and Mother Gin Sling stands in her place. She says Dawson stole silver from her. Sir Guy explains that when he was in the north, he did not use his family name so he could make his way on his own. He said he married a Chinese girl. Mother then says she gave Dawson her father’s wealth and they had a child together. But Dawson left her. She says that after Dawson was gone, his friends came and eventually she was sold to the flower boat. She tells how they were beaten and taken to new ports every week. They even sewed pebbles into the soles of her feet to keep her from running away.

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

A gong sounds and the drunken Poppy/Victoria is brought out. For some reason, she is mad at her father. Mother is grinning like a possum eating a sweet tater. She calls out Omar and says she will kill him one day. In her snit, Poppy says she owes Mother 20,000-pounds.

Sir Guy tries to take Poppy home. She is being a jackass. The maids come back with towels and coats. Sir Guy and Poppy head out. But they stop and Sir Guy tells the Commissioner to come by in the morning for a 20,000-pound check and that the alleged stolen funds are and have been in the North China Bank in Mother’s real name.

Poppy has a meltdown and wants to go back inside. Out on the street, Poppy slips away from her father. He goes back inside to look for her. The Coolie is waiting by the door. Mother confronts Sir Guy when he comes in and says Poppy’s blood is no good. Sir Guy tells her that Poppy is their daughter. He says that after Mother went missing, their child was saved. Sir Guy came and raised their daughter never telling her about China. The old Amah nods that the story is true. Mother says that she should be the one to deal with Poppy.

Poppy has Dixie and Omar in a room shouting at the two. Poppy pulls a small gun from her purse. Omar jumps her and gets the gun. He slides it to the end of the table where Mother has walked in. She tells Poppy that she is her mother. Mother sends Dixie and Omar away. Poppy starts raging on Mother and Mother shots her down. Omar leaves and Mother tells Montgomery that this time they will not be able to bride the police.

Outside, the Coolie asks Sir Guy if he likes the Chinese New Year. The movie ends with an overhead shot of the casino hall in full swing.

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

World-Famous Short Summary – If Mother ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy

I hope you enjoyed today’s show. I really appreciate you spending the time listening. You can find connections to social media and email on my site at There are links in the podcast show notes as well. Remember this show is completely free and independent. All I ask is that you jump over to Apple Podcast and give me a review. It really helps the show get found.

Beware the moors


The Shanghai Gesture (1941)

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