|Boris Leven's design for Mother Gin-Sling's Casino resembles a multi-level Pit of Hell|
The women are von Sternberg's complicated, well-lit archetypes, more devils than angels, the way he used Marlene Dietrich. They had to do a lot of cleaning up of the original play by John Colton, resulting in a "coded" film that "suggested" what was really going on.* The original location was a house of ill repute—a brothel (hinted at by the caged women ringing the casino's playing area, which, as designed by Boris Leven, looks like the Pit of Hell), the floosie (Phyllis Brooks) that Omar picks up in the street is a hooker, not a "dance-hall girl, in the play "Mother Gin-Sling" is named Mother Goddam, and the addiction the young thrill-seeker Gene Tierney plays isn't gambling (as in the film), but drugs, as suggested by her name "Poppy." So, yes, a lot of self-censorshp, but sophisticated audiences could see through the veiled references to see what the issues were.
Both Curtiz and von Sternberg had penchants for filling up the screen-frame, but Curtiz kept things naturalistic, with his performers squarely rooted in specific places. Von Sternberg's close-ups are frequently floating heads, backed by a light pattern that has nothing to do with their surroundings.
But, that's where comparisons end: The Shanghai Gesture is a bizarre bazaar of weirdness, a combination of kitsch and creepiness, a glamorized descent into degradation and venality (beautifully shot, though!), with possibly the worst example of mother-love demonstrated on screen. It is the dark side of entertainment, gussied up with glamor to make the proceedings seem tolerable, something that could be said for all of the work of von Sternberg, master of both light and darkness.
|The Shanghai Gesture is also unique for giving a credit to the extras.|
* Furthman was great at that: in The Big Sleep he and Hawks suggested nymphomania by having the character suck her thumb.