The 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.
Frank 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.
The 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.
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!