Monday, April 21, 2014

Movie – The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

Unlike my prior review – Broken Blossoms – The Bitter Tea of General Yen shows actual passion between an Asian man and a white woman.  It’s still pretty tame compared to today’s standards, but next to the very chaste relationship in Broken Blossoms it’s quite something.  In fact, it was negative reaction to the interracial relationship that was blamed for the failure of this movie.  While it was conservative zealousness that caused people to damn the film then, it’s liberal zealousness that sometimes causes people to damn it now.  Just like with Broken Blossoms the male lead in this film is played by a white man.  There is also a nightmare/sex dream where a heavy caricature of an Asian man is first seen before becoming normal (more on that in a bit).

The film is based on the 1930 novel of the same name written by Grace Zaring Stone.  In it Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) travels to China right in the midst of a civil war.  She’s there to marry her childhood sweetheart Dr. Robert Strike (Gavin Gordon), a missionary man so zealous in spreading the word of God that he refuses to leave a war zone, thus bringing his future wife into harm’s way.  And even after making her travel all the way from America he postpones their wedding so he can go rescue some people first.  Megan stubbornly insists on going with him, they get separated, and she ends up unconscious.

She wakes up on the train of General Yen (Nils Asther), a rich warlord.  She had met him earlier when Bob was trying to get safe passage.  Yen’s contempt for Bob was palpable.  The general has had his concubine Mah-Li (Toshia Mori) attend to Megan.  The two women eventually bond.

When Megan gets to General Yen’s home she finds another American there.  He is simply known as Jones and is played by Walter Connolly.  Who and what he is are never exactly defined, but he’s a money man of sorts for Yen.  Megan is shocked at all that is going on (despite the fact that it’s a war).  Executions are carried out right outside the house.

Everyone knows that women find bad boys sexy, though.  Yen is so different from her fiancé Bob.  Yen is strong, takes what he wants, doesn’t suffer fools, and is straightforward about his interest in Megan – everything that Bob is not.  Yen even shows he has a “soft side” by moving the executions out of the eyeshot of Megan.  How romantic.

Despite herself, Megan starts to become attracted to Yen.  This is never more apparent than during a sex dream she has.  At first it is a nightmare where she is being attacked by a racial parody of General Yen – an image that is the epitome of everything racists would imagine.  As the dream goes on, though, Megan finds herself saved from this attacker by the real General Yen.  The two kiss very passionately.  As you can probably tell, this film was made before the Production Code was being enforced.  Even then they probably only got away with it because of the “it’s only a dream” factor.

Megan continues to stay with Yen, the war continues to go on, and things eventually come to a head.  If you saw the name “Frank Capra” as the director you may have had an image of everything working out happily for everyone, but this was earlier in his career and he doesn’t necessarily follow that formula in this one.

Stanwyck is front and center as the headstrong, stubborn Megan.  If you’ve ever seen her in any other movie you know she’s well cast in that kind of role.  Asther portrays Yen with respect.  While there were complaints about the movie from Chinese officials it was not about the portrayal of the General Yen character, but rather the way that their people were shown treating others during the civil war (which in actuality was probably toned down for the movie - it was war after all).  Walter Connolly is appropriately mysterious as Jones.  He started his film career later in life.  As a character actor he showed up in a ton of movies over a ten year span from 1930 to 1939 before he passed away.  He appeared in Capra’s next two films – Lady for a Day and Best Picture winner It Happened One Night.

If you’ve only seen the more famous Capra films such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life then you may find The Bitter Tea of General Yen to be an interesting alternative.  I was curious to see how the interracial attraction was handled and was surprised by how far they took it, especially for a 1933 movie.  If this film sounds interesting then I recommend you give it a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


  1. Huh. I tried to comment on this last night, but I was tired and must've screwed something up.

    My reason for liking this film probably more than I should is obvious if you know me at all. Beyond my deep and nearly pathological love of Ms. Stanwyck, though, there's a lot to appreciate here. In a lot of ways, this is a film ahead of its time. I always find it interesting when the most controversial aspect of a film when it is released becomes something so bland just a few generations later.

    1. "I always find it interesting when the most controversial aspect of a film when it is released becomes something so bland just a few generations later."

      A tale of two Star Treks illustrates this point. In the original series there was an episode where Kirk and Uhura are forced to kiss. It was very controversial for 1960s television - to the point that the actual physical kiss was not shown since they used a shot where Shatner turned the two of them away from the camera. Fast forward to the 1990s and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had two regular characters - both aliens, but played by a white woman (Terry Ferrell) and a black man (Michael Dorn) - had an ongoing relationship and the reaction to the racial aspect of it was virtually non-existent.

  2. I think this movie is basically about the conflict of attraction and revulsion. Sort of a beauty and the beast fable. The "fact" that Yen is Chinese is just part of his "beast" attributes. She has to look beyond the evil chinaman to see the real person. Definitely one of the more interesting Capra films.

    1. That's a good point. I hadn't considered it.