It is probably a mistake to take anything in The Shanghai Gesture too literally or seriously. Well known as one of Josef von Sternberg’s better post-Marlene Dietrich efforts, it sets a proudly unrealistic melodrama about abandonment and retribution in a den of iniquity called “Mother Gin Sling’s Casino.” Smothered in chinoiserie, the doomed of the world console themselves at Mother’s by degrading themselves further, in a kind of “House of the Rising Sun” for international losers. Into this fantasized corner of decadence and despair steps the gorgeous young Gene Tierney, photographed with the same care Sternberg lavished on Dietrich, and with similarly extraordinary results. As with any Sternberg film, the settings and lighting are the director’s first concern, and Gesture is virtually a jewelry box of sparkling, luminous images.
At one level, then, to talk about Gesture’s racial attitudes is almost ridiculous. And yet not to do so overlooks one of the most fascinating things about it. The film clearly is racist; there isn’t much point in mincing words, especially given that race is a central issue in the story. The depiction of China as a roiling cauldron of depraved pleasures and everyday corruption will confirm the prejudices of those who want to view Asians as the inscrutable “Other.” It also almost goes without saying that all of the principle Chinese characters are played by white actors. In both of these ways, however, Gesture is little different from scores of other Hollywood films.
What is more intriguing is that for all the film’s exploitative exoticism, its deepest contempt is reserved for the half-breed characters, exemplified by Tierney and “Doctor Omar,” (Victor Mature) who is of mixed Arab and European descent. The film none too subtly implies that miscegenation is the real problem, that “East and West can never meet,” and that any transgression of that divide is doomed to disaster. This is not the only Sternberg film to express a suspicion of the “mongrel,” as Omar describes himself. The villain in Shanghai Express is also a half breed. Lest this prejudice be viewed as exclusively Sternberg’s problem, however, it is worth suggesting that the fear of mixed race is deeply-seated and moves beyond questions of ethnicity.
Consider how Barack Obama was criticized by some African-Americans in 2008 for not being “black enough.” Or Tiger Woods being criticized for refusing to deny his mixed racial heritage. This racial fundamentalism, which insists you “identify” with one side of your ancestry while denying the other expresses a general hostility to ambiguity through race. Half-breeds are dangerous because we expose the arbitrary nature of categories accepted as truths. We do not easily fit the “either/or” distinctions that structure experience and substitute for thought. That is why, after my initial disappointment at Sternberg’s attitudes in The Shanghai Gesture, I recognized that their very blatancy can serve a purpose. The film reminds us that people of mixed race can be demonized by both sides. Racism, too, comes in many colors.