Welcome to a new summer feature. My biweekly plan is to come up with a suitable potential double feature. I will briefly talk about each film and then discuss why I paired them (i.e similarities and differences) and why I think they would work well back-to-back. I hope that more often than not I can actually carry out each double feature before writing about them. This one I had not, but I watched The Shanghai Gesture for the first time a couple of days ago and Kongo kept coming to my head.
First up is Kongo from 1932 and The Shanghai Gesture from 1941.
IMDB Summary: From a wheelchair a handicapped white man rules an area of Africa as a living god. He rules the local natives through superstition and stage magic and he rules the few white people through sadism, keeping them virtual prisoners. He lives for the day he can avenge himself horribly on the man who stole his wife and crushed his spine.
A Pre-Code of epic debauchery, Kongo is a sweaty, grimy and dirty remake of West of Zanzibar. It goes about as far as I have ever seen Pre-Code go as far as subject matter and the frankness with which it displays its content. The entire thing reeks of the seething hatred that Walter Huston’s ‘Deadlegs’ Flint feels as he tries to exact revenge on the man who wronged him. It’s a stiff and stagy experience, but also a uniquely uncomfortable one. Everything can be found here; stereotypical superstitious natives, Flint’s greased-up lover with possibly the tightest costume in film history, a drug-addicted schizophrenic doctor who also happens to be the romantic lead, a flash of Virginia Bruce’s boob and oh so much more.
The Shanghai Gesture (1941):
IMDB Summary: A young woman, Poppy, out for excitement in Shanghai, enters a gambling house owned by “Mother” Gin Sling, a dragon-lady who worked herself up from poverty to buy the casino. Sir Guy Charteris, wealthy entrepreneur, has purchased a large area of Shanghai, forcing Gin Sling to vacate by the coming Chinese New Year.
Josef von Sternberg’s last significant release is a reliably self-aware melodramatic gala packed with camp, crowds, celebration and of course, soft focus. Leisurely and meandering, it follows a group of top-to-bottom amoral persons who have found themselves in the anything-goes world of Shanghai, and even more specifically, in the grips of a big-time casino and its owner Mother Gin Sling. Gin Sling is played by non-Asian Ona Munson, decked out in nutty hair, makeup, and hints of Mae West-like delivery. The casino is art-deco hypnotism, a grandeur vision of decorative repetition. The last half hour is an over-the-top feast of twists and camp absurdity, which takes place during an elaborate Chinese dinner party.
Watching them together:
Neither film is among my favorites, but each demand to be seen as they are special oddities that time should not forget.
Both are based on plays; where Kongo was able to keep most of its risqué material, The Shanghai Gesture was neutered by censorship in many ways. The brothel of the play was changed to a gambling casino. Mother Goddamn was changed to Mother Gin Sling. Instead of Poppy becoming addicted to drugs, as the name suggests, she becomes addicted to gambling (though she still seems to be on drugs in the latter half of the film, but this could just be Tierney’s performance). Even though the latter was slashed and altered, it remains a surprisingly bleak filled with surprisingly provocative content. At least Kongo has a couple of half-decent human beings; in The Shanghai Gesture, everyone is grotesque in character.
Revenge is the primary motivator in each film. ‘Deadlegs’ Flint and Mother Gin Sling exact their revenge because of incidents that took place decades beforehand. Their method of revenge is exactly the same; to corrupt the wrongdoer’s daughter. In Kongo, Deadlegs has his enemy’s daughter, who he has custody of, brought to him after growing up in a convent. He proceeds to make her life such a living hell, in the form of implied forced prostitution, that she is a desperate alcoholic completely dependent on him for her fix. In The Shanghai Gesture, Mother Gin Sling carries out her revenge by loaning out massive amounts of money to Poppy, daughter of his enemy, so that she can reduce an adventure-seeking woman to a ruin via a gambling addiction, also completely dependent on her for her fix.
Both films jarringly depict the passage of time. Virginia Bruce’s Ann is in one scene a wholesome girl and in the next the complete opposite; a mere shadow of how we just saw her. Gene Tierney’s Poppy is in one scene a naïve but independent woman full of the desire for experience and in the next, a disheveled shrieking hussy, a dependent paranoiac who just wants more money and the grossly unappealing (both in looks and character) Victor Mature all to herself.
Virginia Bruce is unhinged, turning in one of the best ever Pre-Code performances. Gene Tierney is not quite successful; what starts out solid turns into a triumphantly ambitious failure. Poppy’s downfall is awesomely overplayed to the hilt in the weirdest of ways; but it is impossible to complain when it fits the film’s overall tone and adds to the viewing experience.
Did I mention Walter Huston stars in both films? In Kongo, he revives the role of ‘Deadlegs’ which he originated in the play’s original run. In The Shanghai Gesture, he plays Sir Guy, the fellow who did Madame Gin Sling wrong all those years ago.
Both films feature final-act twists of the same nature. They both take place in one exotic location. They both humanization the revenge go-getters. In Kongo it is entirely unearned and a real deal breaker because with that humanization it misguidedly seeks redemption. In The Shanghai Gesture it is more successful because it’s earned and is careful not to overstep its bounds.
Neither film is particularly great but each is more than worth its weight in excessive transgression. Where Kongo is dripping with jungle-set depravity, The Shanghai Gesture does the same with trademark Sternberg decadence.