Short Takes: Shanghai, Alaska, Girls, Guns, Gangsters on the Western Front

gene-tierney-shanghai-gesture_420The Shanghai Gesture  (***1/2) Such an amazingly lurid, corrupt and wicked film to ever come out of Hollywood during the heyday of the Motion Picture Production Code. Gene Tierney is Poppy a spoiled young woman out for a good time in Shangahi. One night she parties in the biggest gambling house in town owned by Gin Sling (Ona Munson). Meanwhile, entrepreneur Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston) is buying up large pieces of land in Shanghai including the property where Gin Sling’s gambling casino is located. When Gin Sling finds out Poppy is Sir Guy’s daughter she gets the slimy looking Doctor Omar (Victor Mature) to seduce wild child Poppy into the dark world of gambling, drugs and alcohol. A climatic Chinese New Year’s dinner reveals secrets and skeletons hidden in the closet that forever change lives. Gene Tierney, barely twenty one at the time, over plays some of her more dramatic scenes but makes up for it in her looks. Overall, this late Von Sternberg is not completely successful, but there is some nice photography and a fantastic crane shot worthy of his best work.

quiet-11All Quiet on the Western Front (*****) Classic anti-war film that still packs a punch on the horrors, the meaninglessness and evils of war along with the stupidity of those back home preaching the glories of dying for ones country with shallow patriotic slogans and rhetoric. The battle scenes are graphic and war is shown to be senseless.  As Lew Ayres tell a classroom of anxious young teens ready to fight, there’s no glory in war, “We live in the trenches, we fight…we try not to be killed – that’s all!”  This is Lewis Milestone’s masterpiece. The camera work is magnificent especially during the battle scenes. Milestone made a few other good films like the silent version of “The Racket,” “The Front Page,” and “Of Mice and Men” to name a few, but he never came close again to making this fine a work.

CapucineAndTheDukeNorth to Alaska (**) This is one film I just could never  warm up to. Watched it once before years ago and it has not improved with age. The fight scenes are laughably bad, Fabian (Forte) was surely added to the cast only to draw the teenage audience of the day, similar to how Howard Hawks used Rick Nelson  in “Rio Bravo” just the year before. Sadly, Fabian can neither act nor sing. The film looks like director Henry Hathaway and his friend The Duke just got together to have some drinks, laughs and pal around. I hope they had a good time, because I didn’t.

geraldmohr3Girls, Guns and Gangsters (**) If nothing else, this low grade potboiler from the czar of 1950’s trash cinema, the prolific Edward L. Cahn, has a great title! It’s enticing for sure, but it does not take the viewer long to realize there is very little beneath the surface. The film does prove Monroe wanna be sex-symbol, Mamie Van Doren,  does not possess one ounce of talent from the bottom of her toes to the top of her bleached platinum blonde hair. On the plus side, Lee Van Cleef, one of cinema’s great bad guys, is a nasty piece of work here killing at least four people. Considering he does not show up until half way through the film’s short 70 minute running time, that’s a pretty good ratio. The nominal male star is Gerald Mohr who plays an ex-con recently out of prison who heads to Las Vegas with a plan to rob an armored truck carrying two million dollars of gambling money. He recruits the assistance of a local gangster named Joe Darren (Grant Richards) and the ex-wife of his old cell mate, Mike (Lee Van Cleef). That’s where Mamie comes in, she’s a two bit lounge singer named Vi. Everything is set and should run smoothly until the gang hears the news that the hot-headed and jealous Mike has busted out of prison, and with only a few months to go on his sentence. He’s heading toward Vegas to claim back his wife.

Cahn was a prolific filmmaker. In his thirty year career he directed 125 films. The same year he made this film, he directed six others. The following year (1960) he directed ten films and in 1961, an amazing eleven films! Other Cahn works include, “Dragstrip Girl,” “It! The Terror From Beyond Space,” “Shake, Rattle and Rock,” “Girls in Prison,” “Experiment Alcatraz,” “Inside the Mafia” and “Motorcycle Gang.” Cahn also made a series of the Our Gang comedy shorts, many of which included in the cast a young Robert Blake as Mickey.

8 comments on “Short Takes: Shanghai, Alaska, Girls, Guns, Gangsters on the Western Front

  1. The Lady Eve says:

    I’ve seen all but the last of these, John, and agree on those I’ve seen. I haven’t watched “North to Alaska” for years and I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to watch it continuously from beginning to end. I saw Fabian in “Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation” recently. It was made a year or two after “Alaska,” but his acting hadn’t improved much. “All Quiet on the Western Front” influenced my views on war when I was very young – a powerful film (and book). “The Shanghai Gesture” isn’t the greatest of Josef von Sternberg’s films, but I’m inclined to give it 4 stars. Doesn’t sound like “Girls, Guns & Gangsters,” even with a killer title, is worth checking out, so I won’t. Always enjoy your short takes!


    • John Greco says:

      Eve, I found a copy of NORTH TO ALASKA in a local library and since I had not seen it in a long time, I’d give it another try. I’m just glad it did not cost me anything other than time. AQOTWF is just brilliantly filmed especially when you consider this was made during the early days of sound. It should be required viewing in all schools.


  2. John – I like your first two features (and you acknowledge the other two were dogs). Gene Tierney was just too beautiful to take your eyes off her. Her other film from this same year of 1941, was another of those “exotics” where she mesmerizes the camera. I first saw AQOTWF in college. I can’t remember the class but it left me too with a powerful emotional response. Thanks for covering these films in your Short Takes.


    • John Greco says:

      ALL QUIET is still powerful and relevant. One of the best anti-war films ever made. And i agree with you on Ms. Tierney. Thanks for commenting here!


  3. I greatly enjoyed your Short Takes, John, even though the only movie I’ve seen is The Shanghai Gesture, which I appreciate more every time I see it. Girls, Guns and Gangsters sounds like it might be kinda fun — like High School Confidential kind of fun. And I’ve always wanted to see All Quiet on the Western Front. Now I feel even more eager to check it out!


  4. John Greco says:

    S&S – “Girls, Guns and Gangsters” is kind of fun in the way trash cinema can be. “High School Confidential” is a notch higher if no other reason than it ihas the great Jerry Lee Lewis opening with him singing the title song. Hope you catch ALL QUIET, a great, great film.


  5. I’m here to defend “North to Alaska”. I love this campy movie that never takes itself seriously. Fabian is a horrible actor, but I’ve seen as-bad performances from more seasoned actors. Plus – Ernie Kovacs is a terrific villain!

    I think John Wayne shows good comic timing in most scenes; his curmudgeonly character is not without charm.

    In fact, I think I might watch “North to Alaska” again this weekend. 🙂


    • John Greco says:

      SS- I am surprised it has taken this long for someone to come forward and defend this film (LOL). Your mentioning of Kovacs is for me one of the film’s few saving grace’s. Like I said, I could never warm up to it. But at least I am getting you to watch it again!


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