Saturday, January 7, 2012


On a whim, I managed to track down John Colton's original play, The Shanghai Gesture, to read over the holidays. (My recent chatter about Josef von Sternberg brought it to mind.)

It was actually a rather controversial play back in 1918, with protests from the Chinese embassy and accusations of morbid racism. It criticizes Western imperialism in Asia, and tackles taboo subjects like prostitution, addiction, and racial mixing. A scene of a white girl being auctioned off as a sex slave to lascivious Chinese coolies is something out of a Sax Rohmer novel.

Mother God Damn is the madame of the biggest brothel in Shanghai, as well as the keeper of the secrets of the city's western aristocrats. Her secretary is a bankrupt Englishman, working off gambling debts. She's planning a lavish dinner party in celebration of the Chinese New Year, and invited the cream of Shanghai's western ambassadors and businessmen, none of whom dare to refuse. It's all part of a huge scheme of revenge against the arrogant Sir Guy Charteris, who struts in hoping to make Mother God Damn his mistress. Also showing up are Prince Oshima, a dissolute Japanese diplomat, and Poppy, his English girlfriend, a well-dressed hoyden who's a self-dubbed nymphomaniac as well as an alcoholic and drug addict.

In the decadent atmosphere of the brothel, all sorts of plots and counterplots unfold. It's ripe melodrama with touches of Greek tragedy, but it's so trashy by modern standards, like an overproduced and underthought Lifetime TV movie. The attitudes toward race and racial cross-breeding are horribly quaint and outdated, and it's also ruthlessly classist.

The play is rarely produced, with good reason; unless done as overheated camp melodrama, there's really no place for it today. (It was revived by the Mirror Repertory Company in 2009, to mixed reviews, but actually featured an Asian actress playing Mother God Damn for the first time. The picture at top is from that production.) Also, the stage directions call for huge and lavish sets, something most companies would balk at or just make do with minimalist substitutions. The Shanghai Gesture is regarded as something of a minor classic of the theater, but upon reading it I'd guess that its reputation is more about notoriety than actual quality.

And now for the von Sternberg connection....he made it into a movie in 1941. It was heavily bowdlerized, naturally. Mother God Damn became Mother Gin Sling. The brothel became a casino. Poppy, instead of being a drug-and-booze-addled nympho, became a compulsive gambler. It at least had Gene Tierney in luscious Oleg Cassini gowns as Poppy. I saw it years ago; it's not bad, kind of an early noir, but also with that trademark von Sternberg decadence and an odd scene were Walter Huston (as Charteris) seems to be flirting with a brawny coolie (played by Mike Mazurki). 1941 was also an odd year for making this; by then things had become too decorous and von Sternberg's earlier excesses were no longer welcome. Still, it's out there, and might be worth a watch for the sake of a chuckle.

If someone ever mounts a production of this, I'd enjoy seeing it (if I can get to it). The play can be a little hard to find; I borrowed a dusty copy from the Pratt library in Baltimore, and checking on Abebooks shows copies available from $50 to $99. Read it if you can find it, but don't expect much from it. It's an amusing relic, little more.


CatBird said...

Dear Vagrarian,

I was amazed to find a blog entry on "The Shanghai Gesture." I ran in to the movie earlier this AM, and tried to watch it, but could not. Also, taking my dog out took precedence.

In any event, I worked with Mirror Rep when it produced the play. It was, pardon the pun, a Goddamn pain to get going and finally get shown. There were myriad problems with "rights" to the script, the edits, getting appropriate costumes and sets, actors, etc. In the long run, it was not worth the investment of time, anxiety and money, for the resulting play. It was a fine "production," but the Play is so of its time, it can't really translate without major rewrites, and I don't just mean "political corections." Anyway, I'm glad someone has noticed this play, and Mirror's production!


Dear Vagrarian,

I saw "The Shanghai Gesture" last night on TCM. Though it was a little stagey and stilted by today's standards, I enjoyed it.
It was interesting , to me, to speculate on the effects of the friction between Josef von Sternberg and the Hayes office. Was that the original ending of the play? Did Poppy die in the film just because the Hayes office demanded retribution from fallen women? The title "The Shanghai Gesture" seems to imply an altruistic action as the point of the story. In the play, did Mother Gin Sling (Goddamn) sacrifice herself for her daughter's benefit, perhaps taking the blame for Dr. Omar's death?

On another note, Hollywood tough guy Mike Mazurki as a coolie??? This is the third time in one week that I've seen him cast as an Oriental! Who in casting thought of this as credible?

Vagrarian said...

To Catbird: Wow, thanks for coming by and giving me a little background info. Mirror Rep deserves credit for daring to do this play in the modern era, although it's too bad it proved to be such a problem. I was surprised to find out someone had done it and was sorry I'd missed it.

To Harold Hirsch: They tweaked the play quite a bit; in the play, God Damn meets Poppy unaware of the connection, and loathes her at first sight, and if I recall, knew that the daughter Sir Guy was raising was really hers, but didn't know that it was Poppy. I think the movie has her being unaware that Sir Guy was raising her daughter at all. The play does end with God Damn murdering Poppy, although there's some language about how Poppy's mixed-race status makes her unclean. There was no Dr. Omar in the play; I think she just continues on, sadder and broken. (Alas, it's been so long since I read it...)

The play is definitely anti-miscegenation and very much a product of its times; by the time the movie was made such ideas were falling by the wayside (1933's THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN had Barbara Stanwyck falling in love with a Chinese man played by Nils Asther, a Dane.) And by 1955 we had LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING with Jennifer Jones as a Eurasian in love with an American man...and surviving to the end of the movie. (It's actually pretty good, a movie I didn't expect to like but got caught up in one night on TCM.)

And yes, the casting of all those Anglos as Asians was pretty laughable, as bad as seeing some VERY obviously Caucasian actors playing African-American characters in some Poverty Row chillers from the 30s that I've seen recently...

Thanks to you both for commenting! I hope you come back!

Cynthia McKievick said...

Interesting comments on a play I have a family tie to. My Great Great Uncle was John Colton, my Dad was named for him. As to the "rights to the script" we as the heirs have found it interesting as to who has laid claim to them and so on. The play's writing and the film's interpretation was always a conflict. I have a copy of the original play as well as others he wrote. Its always fun to read another's take on what occurred in these productions and the spins placed on them...
Cynthia Colton McKievick