Tag Archives: Frank Capra

Pre-Code Hollywood #13 – The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

The_Bitter_Tea_of_General_YenThe Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)
Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Edward Paramore (based on The Bitter Tea of General Yen by Grace Zaring Stone)
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther, Walter Connolly, Gavin Gordon

The Bitter Tea of General Yen is an early sound film from one of America’s all-time greatest movie directors, Frank Capra. There’s absolutely no indication here that this is an early film of his, as Capra’s film just about matches the incredibly high quality later seen in pictures like It Happened One Night, It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Arsenic and Old Lace, and You Can’t Take It With You. While it may not be the most boundary-pushing film of our Pre-Code Hollywood marathon, the film has a lot to say about miscegenation and sexual relationships between people of different races, and features a grand and chaotic civil war backdrop.

The film takes place during the Chinese civil war of the 1920’s, where we follow a number of American missionaries. The most notable missionaries featured include Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) and Dr. Robert Strike (Gavin Gordon), who are due to be married while in China. Robert postpones the ceremony at the very last minute to save a group of Chinese orphans, with Megan insisting that she accompany him on the dangerous mission. The two stop at the headquarters of General Yen (Nils Asther) in order to gain safe passage to the orphanage, but are laughed off by the General and his men. After saving the orphans, Megan and Bob are knocked unconscious and separated. Megan awakens in the care of General Yen, for whom she reluctantly begins to hold romantic and sexual feelings towards.
Bitter_Tea_02-1Frank Capra’s film took me entirely by surprise, especially since it has seemingly fallen into relative obscurity among moviegoers and film historians. The Bitter Tea of General Yen tells a compelling large-scale story in just under 90 minutes, a feat which many modern films fail to accomplish with such class and determination. The script, adapted by Edward Paramore and based on Grace Zaring Stone’s novel of the same name, quickly establishes our two lead characters and sets them up as being polar opposites. Megan is shown as being a considerate humanitarian who is never afraid to lend a helping hand, and General Yen is immediately established as a cynical and snarky human being who has little faith in his fellow man. Paramore’s screenplay tackles the then-controversial matter of miscegenation, which was then illegal in the majority of the United States. This tough subject is handled very seriously by the writer and director, with a number of scenes implying Megan Davis’ sexual attraction to General Yen – this had never before been seen in a Hollywood film, leading to many audiences ignoring The Bitter Tea of General Yen upon its release.

The amount of character development seen in Megan Davis and General Yen throughout the film is admirable, especially for a film that runs for just 87 minutes. Barbara Stanwyck’s Megan starts off as a strong willed and ambitious young woman, but we come to find out that she’s kind-hearted and empathetic as things go on – she never submits to Yen, but is constantly sparring with him. The first scene involving General Yen sees Megan’s rickshaw driver being killed by a passing car, to which Yen states “life comes cheap in China”, which infuriates Megan. Yen’s line of thinking comes off as very cynical and overly rational upon his introduction. Another example of this comes during a scene where we see Yen’s men methodically executing prisoners via firing squads, with Yen justifying the deaths as being better than starving to death in the inevitable food shortages. It’s clear that Megan and Yen are polar opposites, and yet something about their chemistry makes their constantly evolving relationship feel genuine.
MBDBITE EC009The performances are another strong aspect of The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Barbara Stanwyck is typically quite good as Megan Davis, but it’s Nils Asther as General Yen who really shines. Asther, a Danish-born actor, plays Yen in a “yellowface” performance, but not a minute of it feels exploitative. The actor brings the wildly unpredictable Yen to live in a respectful and patient performance, stealing the show in almost every scene he’s in. Another of the film’s strong performances belongs to Walter Connolly, who plays General Yen’s financial advisor Jones. Connolly’s Jones is much less suave than General Yen, instead coming off as a greedy, ruthless money man.

Frank Capra’s direction of The Bitter Tea of General Yen feels just as assured as his later masterpieces, and yet it comes a number of years before his most famous works. Capra, famous for bringing great performances out his actors, shows an early example of his power over his crew. Bitter Tea feels much more grandiose than many pictures of its era, with Capra making full use of studio sets in order to capture the look and feel of 1920’s China. The atmosphere is thick with rebellion and chaos, with multiple scenes of raging gun battles, executions, and surprise attacks. His condemnation of American missionaries is another revelation viewers can take away from the film – many of the missionaries seen in the film have a sense of superiority when dealing with the Chinese they are supposedly “helping”. In this crazy world of violent rebellion, it’s General Yen who ends up being the most humble and pragmatic of our cast of characters.
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The Bitter Tea of General Yen was a major surprise for me as a Frank Capra fan – the subtle brilliance of its themes of interracial love and racism cannot be overstated. The film’s screenplay and direction give it a unique tone and atmosphere of chaotic civil rebellion mixed with cautious lust between two polar opposite characters. The development of Megan and General Yen’s relationship is entirely believable and at all times compelling, with terrific performances from Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther, and Walter Connolly to back it up. The Bitter Tea of General Yen gets my highest recommendation. For more information, check out this incredible review on Pre-Code.Com!

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Top 100 Films #7 – Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

 

mr-smith-goes-to-washington-stewart-arthur#7. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Sidney Buchman (based on The Gentleman from Montana by Lewis R. Foster)
Starring: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold

Frank Capra’s inspirational Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a magical, patriotic, and incredibly progressive example of how much power films can hold while still being fun and humorous. The first time I saw Mr. Smith was during a sleepless night at film school – it was my very first exposure to Frank Capra, and one of the oldest films I had ever seen up to that point. The magic held by the film still hasn’t worn itself out, as evidenced by its position on my list. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington tells the story of the wholesome young Jeff Smith (James Stewart) who is unexpectedly hand-picked to be the Senator of his home state of Washington. Once he arrives in D.C., he is taken under the wing of Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), who pushes the young man to keep busy by proposing his own bill. The ambitious but dearly naive young man is very quickly taken advantage of by the press, and by other Senators. Senator Paine and the sinister Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) plan on passing a dam-building bill through the Senate, and find Jeff Smith as their only form of opposition. With the help of his tough secretary Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), Jeff will do whatever it takes to stop the dam from being built. When people bring up patriotism in movies being a negative, I often tell them about how effectively it is used in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – perhaps one of the most patriotic and proud films about America ever made. It wears its patriotism and sentimentality on its sleeve, and yet manages to be full of compelling characters, situations, and heart. Frank Capra’s films were very often wholesome and playful in nature, with themes of identity and camaraderie often coming into play, and Mr. Smith is no different. While it may not be as sweeping and epic as something like It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith’s small scale story is personal enough to be every bit as effective as Capra’s holiday classic. Sidney Buchman’s script brings the classic fast-talking dialogue that Capra was so famous for, establishing a number of strong and smooth talking characters in Jean Arthur’s Clarissa Saunders and Claude Rains’ Joseph Paine, both of whom talk circles around Stewart’s Jeff Smith at first. The young hand-picked Senator is quickly able to match their speed, ultimately leading to the film’s incredible filibuster scene – one of James Stewart’s finest moments as an actor. Stewart’s performance as Jeff Smith is phenomenal – he easily portrays the quintessential screen underdog, biting off far more than he can chew and doing battle with the most powerful men in America. Stewart brings his usual “aw, shucks” attitude and amplifies it for Smith’s naivety in the first act of the film, but the rose-colored glasses eventually come off and Jeff Smith’s romantic idea of America is crushed before his very eyes. Watching the evolution of Smith over the period of just two hours is one of the most profound experiences you’ll find in Hollywood history. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the quintessential Frank Capra film – it’s filled with broad humor, memorable characters, and some of the most iconic and inspirational moments in movie history. To read my full thoughts on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, you can check out my full review here.

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Top 100 Films #57 – It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

 

its_a_wonderful_life_-_h_-_1946#57. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra (based on The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern)
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers

After re-watching It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas time this past year, I immediately regretted not placing this film higher – it’s a masterpiece that never fails to bring a tear to my eye.  Frank Capra has a way of putting an undying smile on your face like no others, his films usually feature a  combination of broad humor, wholesome nature, and touching moments that make them infectiously wonderful.  It’s a Wonderful Life is undoubtedly one of his best, and maybe one of the great American movies in general. The film chronicles the life of George Bailey (James Stewart) as he grows up in the town of Bedford Falls.  George has aspirations to go to college and travel the world, but is forced to carry on the family business after his father dies of a stroke.  George never ends up going to college or travelling the world, but marries the love of his life in Mary Hatch (Donna Reed).  After a mounting series of unfortunate events, George’s guardian angel Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) is sent to earth to prevent his suicide. It’s a Wonderful Life has an affect on me like few others I’ve seen – even writing about it now I’m feeling rather weepy.  It’s just such a perfect example of everything I love in the movies – great performances, fantastic characters, quick witted writing, and wholesome to its core.  Frank Capra and writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett do an admirable job of bringing the town of Bedford Falls to life, and even make the overarching subplot about George’s guardian angel believable and unsentimental. Watching George grow up before our eyes is incredible – we see him fall in love, develop far-reaching aspirations and subsequently abandon them, and act selflessly on countless occasions.  Without the film’s brilliant screenplay, none of this would be nearly as effective as it is.  James Stewart’s performance as George Bailey is very good as usual, playing up his “aw, shucks” nature throughout the film, but also believably (briefly) turning into a suicidal, selfish person who pushes Clarence to come save his life.  Donna Reed’s Mary is equally as good as Stewart, acting as the counterweight to her idealistic, sometimes depressive husband.  She’s charming and sweet throughout, always showing George how much she cares about him and their life together.  It’s a Wonderful Life is an absolute classic for a reason – it’s endlessly charming, infectiously positive, and incredibly well written, structured, and acted.  If it isn’t part of your yearly Christmas regiment, you should work it in.

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Smith_goesMr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Sidney Buchman (based on The Gentleman from Montana by Lewis R. Foster)
Starring: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Harry Carey

I had the incredible pleasure of seeing Frank Capra’s remarkable Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on the big screen this afternoon, courtesy of Cineplex theaters’ Classic Film Series.  It was my second time seeing the incredibly important and very timely Mr. Smith, and it inspired me to do some impromptu writing on the film.  To my surprise, I was one of only three people in attendance for the screening, something that disappoints me greatly on the eve of Canada’s own Election Day.  I hope everybody reading this gets something out of it, and decides to both see this important film and vote in tomorrow’s Federal election.

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James Stewart as Jeffrey Smith in Frank Capra’s Oscar-winning Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

Frank Capra, one of America’s greatest directors in the 1930’s and 1940’s (his modern-day equivalent would be somebody like Steven Spielberg), coupled with the handsome, charming, and legendary actor James Stewart (whom Tom Hanks is often compared to) created three terrific and influential films together, including holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life, Oscar-winner You Can’t Take it With You, and this film.  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington tells the incredible story of a hero to the youth of America taking on the might of big business and all those who fall under their power.  The film sees James Stewart’s wholesome Jefferson Smith be hand-picked to represent his state as a Senator in Washington, where he is quickly taken under the wing of Senator Joseph Paine (played by Claude Rains).  Paine and his corrupt partner Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold) look to take advantage of Smith’s lack of political knowledge and his wholesome image and attitude in order to quietly pass a dam-building scheme held within an important appropriations bill framed by the corrupt Taylor.  When nothing goes according to plan for the duo of Paine and Taylor, the two look to defame Jeff Smith’s image at any cost, having him kicked out of the Senate.  The titular Mr. Smith, with help from his secretary Clarissa Saunders (played wonderfully by the incomparable Jean Arthur) hold a filibuster in the Senate as a last-ditch effort to save the land in Smith’s home state, and protect the interests of American’s everywhere.  

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James Stewart pictured in the film’s famous filibuster scene, one of the greatest in American film history.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a remarkably written film, never slowing down for a minute and never going out of its way to pander to the audience.  Though the film may be seen as overly sentimental or patriotic by cynical audience members, Mr. Smith is a relentlessly romantic and passionate film about the importance of freedom and the absence of corruption in the political process.  It perfects the classic David and Goliath story that has been told time and time again, and yet still feels fresh, inventive, and meaningful.  Screenwriter Sidney Buchman puts his heart and soul into this film, and it can be felt on-screen by Frank Capra’s impeccable direction and the terrific acting from the entire cast.  James Stewart as Jeffrey Smith is a revelation, and perhaps one of the greatest performances of the era, if not of all-time.  The filibuster scene – the real showcase for Stewart’s abilities – brought tears to my eyes, as did some of Jeff Smith’s passionate speeches given throughout the movie.  Backing up Jimmy Stewart are the incredibly talented Claude Rains (known most famously for his performance in Casablanca three years later), Edward Arnold, and Harry Carey, all of whom put in very good performances, with Rains and Carey both being nominated for Academy Awards for their supporting performances.  Jean Arthur’s performance is almost on-par with Stewart’s in that she’s an incredibly strong woman, something that was rare for Hollywood at the time.  Arthur’s Clarissa Saunders never sinks to just being the romantic interest of our lead character, but instead coaches Smith into being a powerhouse of a politician, supporting him from behind the scenes.  The writing, direction, and acting resulted in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington being nominated for 11 Academy Awards, and a film nearly 80-years old still holding up to this very day.

I can’t stress how important Capra’s Mr. Smith is, especially at this point in time.  It’s a film about the little man standing up to the bullies, liars, and cowards in big business and in politics, and standing up for everything he believes in.  No matter what odds are stacked against him, he never gives up, and most importantly never gives in to the corruption going on all around him.  We could all learn a lot from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and I hope that a film such as this can still inspire the masses to persevere no matter how bad things can look sometimes.  It is a film so full of hope and passion in a time where we need it the most.  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a masterpiece of American cinema, and one of my all-time favorite films.  I cannot possibly recommend it highly enough.  Highest recommendation.

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