Tag Archives: Sexuality

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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Pre-Code Hollywood #12 – Baby Face (1933)

Baby_Face_1933_film_posterBaby Face (1933)
Directed by: Alfred E. Green
Written by: Gene Markey, Kathryn Scola, Mark Canfield (story by)
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent

Alfred E. Green’s Baby Face is undoubtedly one of the most “Pre-Code” movies we’ve covered during this marathon, portraying Barbara Stanwyck’s main character Lily Powers as a woman who happily sleeps her way to the top. Baby Face makes bluntly comments on the power of human sexuality, and the influence that it holds over men and women, making it truly one of the first films of its kind. Green’s film takes themes that were previously explored in Pre-Code projects like Red-Headed Woman and Blonde Venus, and ramps them up – Baby Face is an empowering, if somewhat unfortunate, tale of a woman doing what she must to break the mold.

Baby Face follows Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck), a young woman who has been prostituted throughout her life by her father. After her father is killed, Lily is free to do as she pleases for the first time in her life. She and her friend Chico (Theresa Harris) hop on a train to New York, where Lily eventually finds work in a skyscraper that houses a large bank called Gotham Trust. Once there, Lily coldly and methodically sleeps her way to the top, having affairs with numerous coworkers. The most notable of which are the company’s Vice President J.P. Carter (Henry Kolker), and Courtland Trenholm (George Brent), the elected President of the bank. Eventually Lily and Courtland marry, which can only end one way unless the young woman undergoes a drastic lifestyle change.
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Few actors had a screen presence that could rival that of Barbara Stanwyck, who absolutely carries Baby Face and raises it to be more than just a somewhat memorable Pre-Code film. Stanwyck’s turn as Lily Powers starts as being incredibly sympathetic – a young girl whose father has exploited sexually for years – and ends as a nearly unlikable, but empowered, female in a corporate position of power. Only a versatile actress like Stanwyck could pull off such an incredible transformation and make it entirely believable. While only 26 years old at the time, Barbara Stanwyck shows off the skills that would turn her into one of the most legendary actresses in Hollywood history. Without her as Lily Powers, it’s likely that Baby Face may have been a tremendous failure in regards to resonating with its audience.

Another highlight of Baby Face comes in its brisk pacing and a plot-driven screenplay. Writers Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola adapted the story by Mark Canfield, turning it into a powerful, subtle, and effective drama about sex and the early days of feminism. The screenwriters make it clearly almost immediately that Lily is an intelligent and highly capable person, but is being held down by her gender. Instead of shaming Powers for the actions that follow, the script treats them as necessary evils on the way to becoming powerful. Baby Face is oftentimes quite funny in its use of clever innuendo, and when paired with Alfred E. Green’s subtle direction makes the film stand out from many of its contemporaries. An recurring example of this happens everytime Lily successfully seduces somebody within the Gotham Trust bank – we are shown an exterior shot of the bank as Green’s camera pans upward, closer and closer to the top. Subtle touches like these make Baby Face a constant joy to watch, and establishes Baby Face as an intelligent and progressive project.

Baby Face is credited as being one of the films that helped to solidify the need for the Hays Code in Hollywood – no film before it had ever been so straightforward about the power of sexuality and the barriers met by women of the time. I can absolutely imagine how the content found within Baby Face may have been shocking to audiences in 1933. Even without showing any actual explicit sexual content, the suggestive comments and subtle direction make the film seem just as shocking as it would with actual scenes of sexuality. Some of the examples of Pre-Code content found in the film include Lily being told by her mentor to take advantage of men in order to attain a position of power, and the subsequent use of sex to move up the corporate ladder. Barbara Stanwyck appears scantily clad in more than a few scenes, using innuendo and her obvious sexual appeal to her advantage. It’s difficult to sum up the reasons why Baby Face was so controversial without spoiling the film’s best moments – you’ll just have to see them for yourself.
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Few of the films I’ve reviewed during the marathon have taken more than one watch to connect with me, at least not until Baby Face – the power of its message did not fully resonate with me until a second and third watch. Alfred E. Green’s film is much more than a shocking drama about sex, it’s a progressive, clever film that makes the absolute most of its short runtime and controversial subject matter. Come for Barbara Stanwyck’s excellent early performance, stay for the smart screenplay and clever direction. Baby Face is highly recommended.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #9 – Red-Headed Woman (1932)

220px-Redheadedwoman1932Red-Headed Woman (1932)
Directed by: Jack Conway
Written by: Anita Loos (based on Red-Headed Woman by Katherine Brush)
Starring: Jean Harlow, Chester Morris, Lewis Stone, Charles Boyer, Una Merkel, Henry Stephenson, Leila Hyams

“So gentlemen prefer blondes, do they?” – The first words uttered in Jack Conway’s Red-Headed Woman perfectly set the tone for what’s to follow. It’s unclear whether the Jean Harlow vehicle was intended to be a drama, a comedy, a romance, or a confused moral tale, but the 1932 film ends up being a strangely compelling blend of all four. Red-Headed Woman is full of unlikable characters with less than noble intentions, all of whom take part in some form of premarital debauchery at one point or another. This may just be the most “pre-code” film of the marathon yet, delightfully teasing the audience with its naughty nature.

Red-Headed Woman starts by introducing Lillian ‘Lil’ Andrews (Jean Harlow), a young lower-class woman who will seemingly stop at nothing in order to live a life free of worry. She quickly seduces her boss Bill Legendre Jr. (Chester Morris), eventually forcing him to leave his lovely wife Irene (Leila Hyams). Unfortunately for Lil, she is soon seen by those around her as a fast, cheap, manipulative homewrecker, which in turn wreaks havoc on her social life and self-esteem. After marrying Bill, Lil quickly sets her sights on a rich tycoon named Charles Gaerste (Henry Stephenson). Thinking Gaerste will propel her into the life of a classy socialite, Lil can’t help but carry out yet another affair – one that will likely end in disaster for all those involved.
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My absolute favorite thing about Red-Headed Woman is that it’s a picture that is outwardly very proud of its less than moral story, revelling in its tantalizing nature. There is no major character who isn’t acting purely out of selfishness – everybody in Red-Headed Woman is out to gain something from somebody. Whether it’s Lil’s want to be included in the everyday activities of the rich and famous, Bill Jr.’s need for sexual satisfaction, Bill Sr.’s want for his son to be seen as a respectable young man, or Charles Gaerste’s want of a much younger woman whom he is free to exploit sexually – it’s every man for himself in Red-Headed Woman. On top of selfish character motivations, our protagonist Lil is quite possibly one of the most frustrating lead characters in cinematic history. Harlow’s Lil continually digs herself deeper and deeper into situations that can only ends badly for her, yet it’s obvious that they excite her too much to ever put an end to her impulsiveness. Lillian is a heavily flawed, ugly character who I loved spending 80 minutes with, even if many of those minutes were indeed rather frustrating.

Jean Harlow’s campy lead performance is delightfully mad in all of its heavy exaggeration. Harlow is somebody whose performances I’ve always enjoyed, and Red-Headed Woman is absolutely no different. It’s obvious that the legendary actress had a lot of fun playing the amoral Lil; a part that only some incredibly brave actresses could have gotten away with playing in 1932. Jean Harlow’s Lil is trashy, overly emotional, and almost entirely vapid, and yet she somehow manages to fool multiple people into falling for her charms. The 21-year old Harlow is the absolute highlight of Red-Headed Woman – it’s hard to believe that five years from the film’s release she would be dead at just 26 years old. Chester Morris’ turn as Bill Legendre Jr. is another of the film’s highlights, improving on his earlier performance in previously-reviewed The Divorcee. Though Bill’s life seems to be falling apart because of Lil’s involvement, he’s clearly so infatuated (and sexually excited) with her that he just doesn’t care.

The film’s shameless script is the final major part of what makes Red-Headed Woman such a delight. Written by Anita Loos (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), who took screenwriting duties over for novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald after his dismissal from the film, Red-Headed Woman knows exactly what it is from the word go. Loos’ script is full of frank discussions about sex and infidelity, which is very refreshing for a film of the era. The screenplay sees Lil taking multiple lovers, forming unlikely relationships with men far more successful herself, and is loaded to the brim with hilarious innuendo. Every beat of Loos’ screenplay is delightful, and at just 80-minutes long, Red-Headed Woman is effortlessly entertaining. I was delighted to see that Loos didn’t try to force a schmaltzy, moralistic ending into the film, instead ending on a hilarious and rather unexpected beat. Some of the pre-code elements featured in Red-Headed Woman include the repeated sexualization of Jean Harlow’s Lil, many counts of premarital and extramarital sex, domestic abuse, divorce, and trading sex in order to move up the social ladder.
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Jack Conway’s Red-Headed Woman is a delight from start to finish, mainly due to its willingness to embrace many of its naughty pre-code elements, a fun script by Anita Loos, and a highly memorable lead performance from the indelible Jean Harlow. It’s a brilliant send up to the desperate, unsatisfied, horny people throughout history who have settled for people completely wrong for them, and to the impulsive, ugly, hysterical nature of love. While it’s not exactly groundbreaking, it was just too much fun to pass up. Red-Headed Woman is highly recommended.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #6 – Blonde Venus (1932)

MV5BNDMwYmZmZDYtMjA1NS00YzJkLWI2ODUtZTA2NTgwMGI3Mzc0L2ltYWdlL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUxODE0MDY@._V1_Blonde Venus (1932)
Directed by: Josef von Sternberg
Written by: Jules Furthman, S.K. Lauren
Starring: Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, Cary Grant, Dickie Moore

Being something of a self-professed film buff, I like to think that I’m fairly well-versed in movie history, especially when it comes to Hollywood. I have to admit that the films of Josef von Sternberg are a massive blind spot of mine, and the director’s relatively small filmography is one of the more daunting things I’ve yet to tackle. Sternberg’s 1932 film Blonde Venus seemed like a perfect place to start off because of its pre-code nature, so naturally I took advantage of the pairing. While Blonde Venus is generally considered to be one of Sternberg’s least memorable directorial efforts, I had quite a strong initial reaction to it – it features a very good performance from Marlene Dietrich, another Hollywood legend I have little experience with, a compelling narrative with real stakes, and is at its core a rather complex morality tale. An impressive and emotional supporting turn from Herbert Marshall certainly helps keep the film together, and an early appearance from Cary Grant was a joy to see.

Blonde Venus follows Helen (Marlene Dietrich) and Ned (Herbert Marshall) Faraday, a young married couple living together with their son Johnny (Dickie Moore). Ned had recently come down with a serious illness as a result of one of his experiments, and the Faraday’s do not have the money for treatment. Helen vows to return to the theatre in order to earn the funding needed to send Ned away to Germany for treatment. Helen’s work in the theatre quickly attracts the attention of Nick Townsend (Cary Grant), a cocksure young politician. With Ned leaving for Germany, Helen and Nick begin to have a love affair . Helen and Johnny move into an apartment owned by Nick, and Helen gradually falls in love with the young politician. When Ned returns home to find Helen and Johnny missing, things begin to fall apart. Ned eventually files for a divorce from Helen, causing her to flee with Johnny in order to keep her young son. What follows is an exciting, morally complex tale of a mother stopping at nothing to protect her young son, and the self-destruction she experiences when she loses him.
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The first act of Blonde Venus serves strictly to set up the private lives of Helen and Ned Faraday, delivering a great deal of character development and exposition in a short twenty minutes. While it certainly isn’t the most exciting or innovative part of the film, it’s important in setting context for the events to come. When Marlene Dietrich takes to the stage for her famous “Hot Voodoo” musical number, Blonde Venus truly picks up and becomes something truly memorable. The number reveals Helen’s nature as a living, breathing woman with sexual needs and desires – a truly modern woman in a world that isn’t yet ready for these things. In this scene, Helen is simultaneously a strong matriarchal figure and a free, modern woman with real power over an audience made up almost entirely of older men. From here, Blonde Venus reveals its true nature as something more than a typical “woman’s picture” – a complex morality tale tackling themes of sex, marriage, freedom, and one’s meaning in life.

The film’s middle act sees Helen running away with her young son Johnny, followed in hot pursuit by her ex-husband Ned and a seemingly endless amount of law enforcement and private investigators. This section of the film is easily the most exciting, though it is rather brief. We see Ned’s desperation to get his son back from the woman who betrayed him, and Helen’s willingness to do anything to survive. When Helen hits rock bottom, she opts to return her son to her ex-husband, later making a pledge to kill herself. Instead of traditional suicide, Helen chooses an unfulfilling life of solitude, taking to the stage and using the men around her to become more successful than ever before. It is here where both Marlene Dietrich and Herbert Marshall shine – both of their characters have very real motivations for their actions, making it difficult to root for just one. The more radical pre-code elements of the film rear their heads during this act, where Helen is eventually forced to prostitute herself in order to feed Johnny. We also see a man threaten to punch his wife, and many subtle references to Helen’s sexuality in general. Hell, the entire first act of the film is about a married woman having an affair – if that doesn’t break the Code’s views of marriage, I don’t know what does.
blonde-venus-01-gJosef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus is a very strong entry into our pre-code marathon. While it may not be his best regarded film, I struggle to find many problems with it outside of some minor pacing issues. The first act is rather slow and filled with exposition, but it’s all vital in the context of what comes later. The film’s ending is disappointing in its suddenness, but it’s too sweet and good-natured to flat out hate. Marlene Dietrich’s performance as Helen Faraday is strong and groundbreaking in its portrayal of a modern, dignified woman who isn’t afraid to put her sexuality on display. Herbert Marshall’s turn as her spiteful, but well-meaning ex husband Ned is equally impressive. Blonde Venus tells a compelling rise and fall (and rise again) story of a truly compelling character, and is more than worth your time. Blonde Venus comes highly recommended.

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Pre-Code Hollywood #2 – The Divorcee (1930)

The_Divorcee_posterThe Divorcee (1930)
Directed by: Robert Z. Leonard
Written by: Nick Grinde, Zelda Sears, John Meehan (based on Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott)
Starring: Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Conrad Nagel, Florence Eldridge, Robert Montgomery

Robert Z. Leonard’s film The Divorcee begins on a far more exciting note than 1929’s In Old Arizona (the first film in our marathon), setting a brisk pace and a progressive attitude that never lets up over its 80 minute run-time. The Best Picture nominee was developed primarily as a vehicle for Hollywood superstar Norma Shearer, who picked up an Oscar for Best Actress for playing Jerry, the film’s titular divorcee. The Divorcee opens with a party where love and passion is in the air and jealousies are running high, when suddenly that all comes to a halt with the jarring sounds of a car accident. From there, The Divorcee establishes its consistent tone and rather progressive attitude, imagining women as social and sexual equals to their male counterparts.

The Divorcee follows Jerry (Norma Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris), a couple who have been married for three years. When Jerry discovers that Ted has been cheating on her, she decides to get even with her husband and sleeps with Ted’s good friend Don (Robert Montgomery). When Ted returns from a business trip, Jerry informs him that she’s “settled their accounts”, and an enraged Ted demands a divorce. From there, The Divorcee turns into a picture chock full of adultery and open sexuality, apparent alcoholism, and melodrama of the highest sort.
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Melodrama has always been a major point of interest for me – there’s just something so inherently fascinating about watching the heightened romantic lives of exaggerated on-screen characters. The Divorcee is no different than many of the melodramas I’ve enjoyed in the past – its passions are exaggerated, the situations unlikely, and the consequences non-existent, which is probably what ultimately contributed to my overall enjoyment of it. Norma Shearer’s Oscar-winning turn as Jerry is terrific, showing off strength, wit, and independence in every scene of the film – even if some of her actions were questionable. The character of Jerry seems incredibly forward-thinking for 1930, long before the era of screwball comedies where women were believably verbally sparring with men. Her character feels like a living, breathing human being who has believable faults and lovable charms about her, something that the previous film in our marathon was sorely missing. The Divorcee intelligently tackles themes of adultery and human sexuality with a deft – if sometimes clumsy – hand, showing off a great deal of pre-code Hollywood goodness. On top of themes of sexuality and the sanctity of marriage is the rampant use of alcohol – which seems to appear in every major scene in the film. The film’s early accident scene is probably one of the first instances of drunk-driving on the big screen, another instance of progression in this exciting pre-code era. The script by Nick Ginde, Zelda Sears and John Meehan (based loosely on Ursula Parrott’s story Ex-Wife) asks the audience bold questions about infidelity, and paints a brief picture of a strong, modern woman getting even with the man who betrayed her. One of my major problems with The Divorcee is a side story involving Paul (Conrad Nagel) and Dorothy (Florence Eldridge), which only served to add to the film’s melodramatic nature and add some minutes to its runtime. While the side story in general is interesting, it just doesn’t feel natural to include it in what is already a fairly compelling and dramatic story of love gone bad. The film’s ending is another weak point, as it goes against the overall tone and message that I felt the writers and director were trying to portray. The whole experience just feels rather counterproductive in its last ten minutes, which is a damn shame.

The Divorcee is a strong, dramatic film from director Robert Z. Leonard. Its themes of sexuality, infidelity, and divorce were groundbreaking at the time, and hold up rather well all things considered. It’s a film that simply could not have been made in a post-Hays Code era, at least not on this scale. Norma Shearer’s Oscar-winning turn as Jerry is very strong, realistically portraying a strong, independent, free-thinking female protagonist. Overall, Leonard’s film is a mostly strong take on an all-too taboo subject – divorce. It falls apart slightly in its final minutes, and features some unnecessary plot elements, but the positives outweigh the negatives here. The Divorcee is worth seeing for its forward-thinking screenplay, its charming melodramatic nature, and for Shearer’s performance alone. It’s recommended.

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