Viewers of the day took The Shanghai Gesture in stride, almost allowing it to pass as just another offbeat film. But genre-dissecting critics, then and now, were to give heady accolades to this production. Cahiers du Cinema would rank the film as von Sternberg's "strangest and most fascinating work." In The Cinema of Josef von Sternberg (Tantivy Press, 1971) John Baxter would evaluate this release as "the last classic Sternberg film, an intricate ivory sculpture, with concentric globes of carefully wrought meaning." Herman G. Weinberg, in his critical study, Josef von Sternberg (Dutton, 1966), would insist that "the master of chinoiserie has done it again."
In such a film intent on emphasizing the exotic decoration to the detriment of the characters, it is difficult to assess the performers' work as anything more than extensions of the director's overall plan. Taking this into consideration, it is interesting to note that with Poppy, Tierney created her second most memorable 1940s screen role. (Laura at 1944 Twentieth Century-Fox was her most penetrating part of the decade.) In addition, Huston was more than usually restrained, and Victor, for the first time, used his potentially expressive face to exhibit complexity of character beneath his cold exterior.
In his third-billed role in The Shanghai Gesture, Victor plays the fez-topped Egyptian flesh merchant who is, in his own words, a "thoroughbred mongrel." He coldly receives Gene Tierney's Poppy as his property and puts her at the top of his list of "availables" within the walls of a "gambling hell" that is presided over by the girl's mother, Ona Munson's Mother Gin Sling. Two Oriental themes are suggested in the story: that all sins are paid for on New Year's Eve, and that the sins of a person are inherited by his children. These ideas come out when Tierney's Poppy goads her emotion-drained mother into action on the holiday eve. She tells Mother Gin Sling, "You are no more my mother than a toad." The mother shoots her with a pistol, leaving Poppy's father, Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), wandering out into the holiday crowds, a crushed man.
Mature went from this drama to a loanout assignment at Twentieth Century-Fox in the non-musical version of I Wake Up Screaming (1941) with two former girlfriends, Betty Grable and Carole Landis. Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone, the film is an intriguing murder mystery, Bosley Crowther's statement in the New York Times that "the plot is nothing of any consequence" notwithstanding. When Vicky Lynn (Landis), a prospect for Hollywood stardom, is murdered, her sister (Grable) wants the culprit brought to justice. Victor, as publicist Frankie Christopher, the man credited with having discovered Landis' talent, becomes the prime suspect and is relentlessly pursued by the psychopathic cop (Laird Cregar) assigned to the case.
There seemed no end to the job opportunities for Victor at this point. Von Sternberg mentioned he wanted the actor for Lady Paname, to be produced at United Artists (it never was); RKO requested his services for Passage to Bordeaux; and Twentieth Century-Fox wanted him on the soundstages for Highway to Hell. But before Victor would agree to any offers, he demanded that his status with Roach be clarified. The producer-director was paying Mature a flat weekly salary of $450, but The Shanghai Gesture producer Pressburger paid Roach $3,750 weekly. Victor felt that Roach's $3,300 weekly gravy was a bit too much. When Roach next offered to loan his much-in-demand player to Twentieth Century-Fox for Song of the Islands (1942), at $22,000 for nine weeks' work, Victor rebelled. He demanded that Roach give him a share of the prosperity and refused to perform for less than $1250 a week, guaranteed for forty weeks a year.
In November, 1941, Fox bought Victor's contract from Roach for a reputed $80,000. With a special loanout provision to RKO, the agreement stipulated that Mature's salary would be $1200 a week. On the Fox lot, he quickly made friends with the publicity department staff, who saw that his name got into the Los Angeles area newspapers as often as possible.
In his own inimitable way, Victor confided to one reporter at the time that because of the company's heavy investment in buying his contract, "the studio will have to make a success of me." He seemed blithely unconcerned, at least in public, about his competition on the new home lot, which included such actors as Don Ameche, Dana Andrews (on a contract shared with Samuel Goldwyn), Laird Cregar, Henry Fonda, Richard Greene, John Loder, George Montgomery, Lloyd Nolan, John Payne, Tyrone Power, Cesar Romero, John Sutton, and Shepperd Strudwick.
Both George Raft and Cesar Romero had wanted Victor's part in I Wake Up Screaming, but there was no dispute over the role of Jefferson Harper in Song of the Islands; it was tailor-made for Mature. It teamed him for the second time with Betty Grable in a Technicolor concoction that one critic dubbed a "hula-Western." The New York Times proclaimed, "As a movie Song of the Islands is a great bathing suit advertisement." The plot was simplistic at best: Victor, as the son of an American cattle baron (George Barbier), arrives on a Pacific Island where he meets, loves, hates, and then loves again Eileen O'Brien (Grable), the vivacious daughter of a beachcomber played by Thomas Mitchell. O'Brien owns a stretch of beach land that Victor's Jefferson and his father want, to launch their joint cattle spread. Since Mitchell's pugnacious O'Brien is against selling the area to the cattle baron and his son, a convenient Romeo and Juliet situation is quickly established. But the seventy-five-minute fest ends on a happy note, with everyone dancing hulas, shaking hands, kissing, and being awfully friendly.
While the obvious assets of Song of the Islands were shapely Grable strutting, singing, and posing in an array of Dorothy Lamour-inspired costumes, and the hard-hitting humor of double-take king Jack Oakie, Victor added a special something to the proceedings, namely, beefcake appeal. The film's story required him to wear short-sleeved, tight-fitting net sweaters and flowered lava-lavas, both of which displayed his abundant muscle. Otis L. Guernsey, Jr. (New York Herald-Tribune) observed that Victor "must henceforth be known as the sweater-boy [a companion to sweater girl Lana Turner?] He models a succession of gorgeous--the technicolor effect--knitted creations with undeniable grandeur and his brunette waves nicely complement Miss Grable's beautifully coiffured blonde locks." As in subsequent Fox films, Ben Gage performed Victor's soundtrack singing.
On October 19, 1941, Marcellius Mature died in Louisville of a heart attack. He was then sixty-four years old. His widow chose to continue living in the family home, but announced she planned to visit frequently with her famous son in California.
Meanwhile, producer Edward Small announced he wished to film the life story of Rudolph Valentino and that he wanted to borrow Victor from Fox. That project came to naught at the time, but Fox had better plans for Victor. The studio was experiencing great success with its series of Tin Pan Alley nostalgia movies, and decided to fashion a feature around the life of composer Paul Dresser (1857-1911), loosely based on the story My Brother Paul by Theodore Dreiser. Harry Cohn of Columbia loaned his top gold mine, Rita Hayworth, to Twentieth for My Gal Sal (1942). Recently separated from husband Edward Judson, Rita was ripe for a heated love affair, and Victor filled the bill to perfection. During the shooting of one of his love scenes with titian-haired Miss Hayworth, Victor collapsed and was rushed to a hospital where his malady was diagnosed as "primrose poisoning." From his sick bed he revealed that his marital rift was irreparable and that Mrs. Mature would most likely obtain a divorce.
My Gal Sal proved to be slick fiction geared to the Twentieth Century-Fox mold. Victor hardly resembled the real-life, three-hundred-pound Paul Dresser, but no matter. The actor gamely played banjo-plucking Dresser who leaves his Indiana home to join a tank town medicine show and eventually ends up in New York. In the city, he writes such songs as "On the Banks of the Wabash," "Blue and Gray," and the title song of the film, after falling in love with magical musical stage star Sally Elliott (Hayworth). Directed by Irving Cummings, the film features Rita "singing" eight melodies. Since the true test of a picture of this sort is really the quality of music, Fox was in good shape; in addition to the Dresser tunes, Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger dreamed up such songs as "Me and My Fella and a Big Umbrella," "Midnight at the Masquerade," "Here You Are, " and several others, all to bolster the rather tinny plot.