(SLWB - February 29, 2012)
Director: Josef von Sternberg, with Stars: Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Ona Munson, Phyllis Brooks and Victor Mature. WOW caught this on TCM on 3/2/29, both campy & entertaining
A two young women, floozie Dixie (Phyllis Brooks) and mysterious Poppy (Gene Tierney), arrive in Shanghai, a very memorably bizarre, sleazy, and oily looking "Doctor" Omar (Victor Mature) spots down and out Dixie and basically pimp-like picks her up and conveys her to a huge den of iniquity, an ornate gambling house/brothel visually cueing Dante's Inferno owned by "Mother" Gin Sling (Ona Munson) a Classic Dragon-lady who gives Mature a run for his money in the bizarre department, looking almost like a Chinese Medusa with a hairstyle that resembles writhing snakes.
When I first saw Munson I could have almost sworn she was Gloria Swanson she'll really remind you of Swanson's performance in Sunset Boulevard hell she even sounds like Swanson unless Swanson was doing a Munson interpretation in Sunset. . .
Based on a play by John Colton, Sternberg according to TCM's Robert Osborne, had a lot of trouble getting the original material past the Hayes Code, and its not hard to see why when you see the film. The original play was about a brothel, Gin Sling was the madam in fact Madam Goddamn in the play, "Doctor" Omar was probably a pimp/abortionist, Poppy was addicted to opium and at one point in the play declares that she is a nymphomaniac. Anyway it may behoove the Noir aficionado to track down the play and see what might have been.
The concentric descending circles of Gin Slings Place
Mature deposits Dixie into "Mother's" clutches and "chorus girl" Dixie visually clues us in to her true profession "whore"when she spreads her legs as she sprawls upon a chair displaying her runny nylons to a leering Mature.
Supposedly Sternberg had a tough time getting this material
Dixie & Omar a first meeting after being "rescued" from the streets....
....and ensconced in club
You decide who looks more ridiculous fez sporting "Doctor" Omar. . .
or "Mother" Gin Sling
Afterwards in the huge gambling hall sitting at the bar Poppy (an incredibly beautiful Tierney) is spotted by Omar sitting with an Indian where she remarks "It smells so incredibly evil", intoxicated by the very repugnance of the place, she adds "I didn't think a place like this existed except in my imagination." Omar zeros in inducing her to try her luck at roulette. She ends up hocking her jewels to stay in the game.
Sir Guy Charteris (Huston), wealthy entrepreneur, has purchased a large area of Shanghai, and is forcing Gin Sling to vacate her holdings by the coming Chinese New Year. Gin Sling, who has found out that Poppy is Charteris' wayward daughter, has instructed the smarmy Doctor Omar lto hook Poppy deeper and deeper into an addiction to gambling, alcohol, and probably opium. Gin Sling, eventually realizes that Charteris was her long-ago husband who she thinks abandoned her and she now plans her revenge by inviting Charteris to a Chinese New Year dinner party to expose his past indiscretions. Charteris, however, has his own hole card up his sleeve.
This film has been called a proto Noir more for its subject matter than for its "look" its more in the traditional Hollywood style (see the stills above) but its interesting never the less. A cast of hundreds is employed to replicate Shanghai and you will spot a bald headed Mike Mazurki playing a coolie who utters the closing line about Chinese New Year which I'll bet Polanski used as a reference in Chinatown. Caught this on TCM funny and entertaining, 6-7/10