THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1933) B/W 89m dir: Frank Capra
w/Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther, Toshia Mori, Walter
Connolly, Gavin Gordon, Lucien Littlefield, Richard Loo, Helen Jerome Eddy, Emmett Corrigan, Clara Blandick, Moy Ming, Robert Wayne
Although not one of director Capra's better-known films, this Occidental-Oriental romance is one of his most deeply felt movies. Missionary Stanwyck is drawn to a Chinese warrior who holds her captive. The film is strikingly sensual and quite daring for its time, especially in its treatment of the interracial romance. Acting, particularly by Stanwyck and Asther, is sensitive.
From the Turner Classic Movies website, www.tcm.com, this article about the film by David Sterritt: "Anyone with a smattering of film history --- or American history, for that matter --- will watch closely when The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) moves toward its big love moment, which happens in a dream sequence. Hollywood star Barbara Stanwyck plays the woman, Megan Davis, an American missionary who's recently landed in China, and Swedish star Nils Asther plays the man, General Yen, a Chinese warlord who's been holding Megan as a semi-willing captive while civil war rages outside his palace. They speak in romantic tones, they gaze into each other's eyes, they move their faces slowly, slowly together. Then their lips meet, and you know this moment must have brewed some extremely bitter tea back in 1933, when interracial on-screen smooching was strictly taboo.
"Sure enough, Columbia Pictures and director Frank Capra found themselves in hot water. 'Seeing a Chinaman attempting to romance with a pretty and supposedly decent young American white woman,' predicted Variety reviewer Sam Shain, 'is bound to provoke adverse reaction.' How true. Capra claimed in his memoir, The Name Above the Title, that the picture lost money because it 'was banned in Great Britain and in British Commonwealth countries due to the shocking implications of a love affair between a yellow man and a white woman.' While that isn't true --- the Commonwealth censors passed the picture, as did the British censors after a few cuts --- The Bitter Tea of General Yen definitely lost money, despite Columbia's energetic publicity campaign for the million-dollar production, its most expensive to date, and according to a Variety report, the 'nucleus' around which the studio's entire 1933 slate would be marketed. 'Drawn together by fate,' the ads trumpeted with an uneasy blend of candor and sensationalism, 'a man of the East...a woman of the West...their forbidden love wrecked an empire.'
"Another loser was Radio City Music Hall, the largest movie theater in the West or East, where Capra's melodrama had its New York premiere on January 11, 1933, the same day it debuted in other large cities. The ritzy and enormous Music Hall had opened for business just two weeks earlier as a vaudeville house, then quickly introduced a policy of film showings with tickets cheap enough for Depression audiences to afford. The Bitter Tea of General Yen was the first movie to play there; it was scheduled for a minimum two-week run, but the theater yanked it after eight days and $80,000 in grosses, despite the certainty of a $20,000 loss on its $100,000 rental fee. In his memoir, Capra proudly recalls that 'it was chosen as the film to open Radio City Music Hall,' omitting its less-than-glorious performance on the occasion. He certainly considered the movie to be big and bold enough for the world's biggest and boldest movie house; in his book American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra, critic Raymond Carney makes the fascinating point that Yen's palace actually resembles one of the great '30s picture palaces, which tried to 'create a world of cinematic consciousness that could stand as an alternative to the world outside the film.'
"Based on a story by Grace Zaring Stone, which Capra called a 'strangely poetic romance,' The Bitter Tea of General Yen begins in war-torn Shanghai, where an aptly named missionary, the Rev. Dr. Bob Strife, is taking an afternoon off from saving souls to marry Megan, his childhood sweetheart. But duty calls --- several children are stranded in an imperiled orphanage, and Bob rushes off to save them before the ceremony starts, taking Megan along for the ride. The situation is more chaotic than he bargained for, and when he's knocked unconscious by a rioting mob, Megan gets rescued by General Yen, who spirits her away, puts her up in his summer palace, and does what he can to woo and win her. ...
"The Bitter Tea of General Yen was the fourth picture in four years directed by Capra with Stanwyck as the star; she teamed with him again for Meet John Doe in 1941, but this was her last Columbia film. She handles her role with skill, gracefulness, and a lot of glamour, thanks partly to cinematographer Joseph Walker, who appreciated the movie's 'pictorial possibilities' and spiced it up with portrait lenses and a diffusion device of his own design. As the other main character, Capra didn't want 'a well-known star made up as an Oriental,' but he had no problem with 'a not-too-well-known Swedish actor' made up as one. Asther had the 'impassive face' and 'slightly pedantic' accent that Capra was looking for, so the make-up artist covered his upper eyelids with 'skins' and clipped his eyelashes to a third of their normal length, and the wardrobe department decked him out in sumptuous Mandarin robes and a tall black skullcap. The result of these labors, not surprisingly, is a Hollywood stereotype: 'On the screen,' Capra enthuses in his memoir, 'he looked strange - unfathomable.' But it's visually stunning nonetheless, making Yen one of Capra's most memorable characters.
"Like others connected with the picture, Stanwyck blamed its poor box-office showing on racist backlash. McBride quotes her as saying, 'The women's clubs came out very strongly against it....I was so shocked. [Such a reaction] never occurred to me, and I don't think it occurred to Mr. Capra when we were doing it.' Maybe not, but Capra was cruising for an Oscar® at this point in his career, and he saw the project as 'Art with a capital A,' risky and offbeat enough to convince the Academy that it was an act of culture as well as commerce. Although it suffered a shut-out from the Oscar® race, Capra kept up his faith in it, saying a few years later that it 'has more real movie in it than any other I did.' He was right. For all its racial stereotyping and insensitive dialogue, The Bitter Tea of General Yen endows Yen with an outward charisma and inward dignity that never quit, and his final exit from the story is as emotionally rich as anything Capra ever crafted. Stanwyck also shines in what one commentator calls, with some exaggeration, 'the only art film' she ever made. The movie and its compelling lead performances deserve a far wider audience than they've received."
From Joseph McBride's biography of the director, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success: "Though Constance Cummings, who had appeared in American Madness, originally was set to play the lead female role of the missionary Megan Davis, Capra gave the part instead to Barbara Stanwyck. Bitter Tea was the first film he had made with Stanwyck since she had rejected him and he married Lu [Lucille Warner Reyburn, Capra's wife of many years] on the rebound. For both actress and director, the story must have had deep emotional resonance.
"Stanwyck's character is simultaneously repelled by and attracted to the Chinese general, whose pride demands that she come to his bed willingly or not at all. When he realizes at the end that she can never fully overcome her instinctive sexual revulsion toward him, he arranges for her safety and then takes poison.
"In the novel, the 'bitter tea' of the title is only metaphoric: the general is stabbed to death by his enemies while helping Megan escape. The screenplay, written for [producer Walter] Wanger and [the film's original director Herbert] Brenon by Edward Paramore, kept that ending but added an earlier scene of the doomed general preparing a cup of poisoned tea, then throwing it away when Megan surrenders herself to him. But when Capra took over the project, he changed the ending so that the general has no false hope of winning Megan, and he had the general commit suicide rather than live with the ultimate humiliation of sexual rejection by the woman he loves.
"Through his direction of Stanwyck and [cinematographer Joseph] Walker's luminously erotic photography, Capra also intensified at every point the sexual longing Megan feels for General Yen, and he mocked her feelings of revulsion in the remarkable sequence of Megan's erotic nightmare, which has no equivalent in the novel [by Grace Zaring Stone]. In the script, Megan is seduced by a handsome masked stranger who she realizes too late is General Yen. Capra added the expressionistic details of Yen's grotesquely exaggerated teeth and fingernails, which turn him into a rapacious monster. As Stanwyck explained her approach to her character, 'Any revulsion would be within herself, at least that's how I felt --- "How could I be attracted? How could I?"' Capra's addition of the monstrous details demonstrates the absurdity of her racist fears at the same time that he gives them visual expression.
"The film's complex viewpoint toward racism --- a complexity unique in Capra's otherwise racially insensitive body of work --- is also a reflection of Capra's ambivalence toward his own sexuality. It is given full expression here, for once, by his overwhelming need to deal with his repressed feelings toward the now definitely unattainable Stanwyck, and to exorcise those feelings by killing off the part of himself (represented by General Yen) that wanted her. What makes Bitter Tea such a rich and subtle film is the way that Capra manages to identify equally with the yearning, fatalistic general and with the ambivalent Megan. Although the pessimism of Capra's ending and his depiction of China as a land of nightmarish barbarism certainly reflect a conservative, if not bigoted, viewpoint, Capra also was able, this one time, to reach beyond his usual racial prejudices by dealing with them forthrightly and critically through Megan. Apparently what enabled him to do so was his recognition that in his affair with Stanwyck, he had played a role similar to that of the doomed General Yen.
"Capra's sense of empathy with the man of another race was aided, no doubt, by the fact that the general was a cultured, exotic Chinese, ruthless toward his enemies but also a non-Communist representative of a people esteemed by many Americans of that era. Capra could find no real Chinese he considered suitable for the part, casting instead the tall and elegant Swedish actor Nils Asther. Despite his moments of casual savagery, which seem to lend credence to Megan's moments of revulsion, and despite his protective facade of cynicism ('Life at its best is hardly endurable'), Capra's General Yen is overwhelmingly a romantic, a sensitive and poetic dreamer, a lover of the most exquisite refinement --- or, as Stanwyck herself put it, 'a marshmallow.'
"No stronger proof of Capra's emotional identification with General Yen exists than the fact that, despite the film's failure at the box office and its failure to win even an Academy Award nomination (his supposed motive for making it), Capra's enthusiasm for the film was undiminished. In the late thirties he described it to Edward Bernds as his favorite of all his films:
"'I know it didn't make money, but it has more real movie in it than any other I did.'"