Gigolo "Doctor" Omar (Victor Mature) bribes the Shanghai police not to jail the broke American showgirl Dixie Pomeroy (Phyllis Brooks); he invites her to seek a job at the casino owned by Dragon-lady "Mother" Gin Sling (Ona Munson), his boss.
In the casino, Omar attracts the attention of a beautiful, privileged young woman (Gene Tierney), fresh from a European finishing school. She is out for some excitement. When asked, she gives her name as "Poppy" Smith.
Meanwhile, Gin Sling is informed that she must move her establishment to the much less desirable Chinese sector. She is given five or six weeks, until Chinese New Year, to comply. Gin Sling is confident that she can thwart this threat to her livelihood, and orders her minions to find out everything they can about the man behind it, Englishman Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), a wealthy entrepreneur who has purchased a large area of Shanghai that contains her gambling parlor. Dixie proves to be an unexpected source of information; Charteris had taken her out to dinner a number of times, before dumping her to avoid her meeting his newly arrived daughter, Poppy, whose real name is Victoria Charteris. From Dixie's description, Gin Sling realizes Charteris is someone from her past.
Meanwhile, Poppy falls in love with Omar and becomes addicted to gambling and alcohol. Though the spoiled woman is openly contemptuous of the casino owner, Gin Sling allows her credit to cover her ever-growing losses.
Gin Sling invites Charteris and other important dignitaries to a Chinese New Year dinner party. Charteris at first declines, but then curiosity gets the better of him. At the dinner, she exposes his disgraceful past. Charteris, then calling himself Victor Dawson, had married her. One day, he abandoned her, taking her inheritance, leaving her destitute and alone. Thinking her baby had died and forced to do whatever she had to in order to survive, she wandered from place to place, until she reached Shanghai. There, Percival Howe had faith in her and backed her financially, allowing her to work her way up to her current position.
To cap her revenge, she has Victoria brought in. Victoria openly flaunts her attraction to Omar and ridicules her father. As Charteris takes his wayward daughter out, he tells Van Elst privately to come to his office the next morning to pick up a £20,000 check for Gin Sling and tell her "the funds she claims I took are, and always have been in an account in her name" in a north China bank.
Despite hearing this, Victoria defies him and goes back inside where the other guests have left. When he tries to retrieve her, he is confronted by Gin Sling. He then reveals that their baby had been found alive and put in a hospital where Charteris found her and brought her up far from China. Victoria is Gin Sling's own daughter.
Gin Sling then tries to talk to Victoria alone, revealing that she is her mother, but when the young woman continues insulting her, Gin Sling shoots her dead. The Dragon Lady then remarks to Howe that this is something she cannot bribe her way out of. The muscular coolie, standing outside with Charteris, delivers the bitingly ironic last line "you likee Chinese New Year?" as Charteris realizes what has happened.Gene Tierney as Poppy (Victoria Charteris)
Walter Huston as Sir Guy Charteris (aka Victor Dawson)
Victor Mature as "Doctor" Omar
Ona Munson as "Mother" Gin Sling
Phyllis Brooks as The Chorus Girl, Dixie Pomeroy
Albert Bassermann as Van Elst
Maria Ouspenskaya as The Amah
Eric Blore as The Bookkeeper, Caesar Hawkins
Ivan Lebedeff as The Gambler, Boris
Mike Mazurki as The Coolie
Clyde Fillmore as The Comprador, Percival Montgomery Howe
Grayce Hampton as The Social Leader, Lady Blessington
Rex Evans as The Counselor, Mr. Jackson
Mikhail Rasumny as The Appraiser, Mischa Vaginisky
Michael Dalmatoff as The Bartender
Marcel Dalio as The Master of the Spinning Wheel, Marcel
Leyland Hodgson as Ryerson
There were several attempts to turn the play into a film in the 1930s, one of them by Cecil B. DeMille, and another in the early 1930s by Edward Small at United Artists. By 1940 it was estimated there had been 32 previous attempts to film the play. Among the changes made to appease the censor was replacing the Japanese character of Prince Oshima to Dr Omar to avoid miscegenation.
Filming started 11 August 1941.
Unusual at the time, is that the list of actors in the opening credits end with a title card honoring the extras. It reads:
And a large cast of "HOLLYWOOD EXTRAS" who without expecting credit or mention stand ready day and night to do their best -- and who at their best are more than good enough to deserve mention.
Keye Luke painted the mural that is displayed in the casino.
Film critic Dennis Schwartz gave the film a positive review, writing, "Josef von Sternberg's (The Scarlet Empress/The Blue Angel/The Devil is a Woman) last great Hollywood film is based on a 1925 play by John Colton that required over 30 revisions ordered by the Breen Office censors before it was deemed acceptable. In one unreleased censored version, attributed to writer Jules Furthman, the blemished noirish character named Mother Gin Sling is instead named Mother Goddamn and runs a brothel instead of a casino. What remains from all the cuts is the surreal baroque setting--a gesture to the descent of mankind into the bowels of the earth--a casino designed like Dante's Inferno. Despite the forced changes, this is still a delirious masterpiece of decadence and sexual depravity that surrounds itself with Eastern motifs that are meant to mystify rather than enlighten."
NominationsAcademy Awards: Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White, Boris Leven; 1942.
Academy Awards: Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, Richard Hageman; 1942.