Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990), one of Hollywood’s most respected leading ladies. Known for her snarky and cigarette-filled performances, many of Stanwyck’s Pre-Code films have become notorious for their delightful disinterest in adhering to the provisions of the 1930 Production Code. Surprisingly, we’d only featured one Stanwyck film here before, Night Nurse (1931). So far in this survey of her work, we have covered Ladies Of Leisure (1930), Illicit (1931), Ten Cents A Dance (1931), The Miracle Woman (1931), Forbidden (1932), Shopworn (1932), So Big! (1932), and The Purchase Price (1932). Today…
The Bitter Tea Of General Yen (1933)
An American missionary falls in love with a Chinese warlord. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther, Toshia Mori, and Walter Connolly. Screenplay by Edward E. Paramore, Jr. Based on a story by Grace Zaring Stone. Directed by Frank Capra.
“The American missionary Megan Davis arrives in Shanghai during the Chinese Civil War to marry the missionary Dr. Robert Strife. However, Robert postpones their wedding to rescue some orphans in an orphanage in Chapei section that is burning in the middle of a battlefield. While returning to Shanghai with the children, they are separated in the crowd, Megan is hit in the head and knocked out, but is saved by General Yen and brought by train to his palace. As the days go by, the General’s mistress Mah-Li becomes close to Megan and when she is accused of betrayal for giving classified information to the enemies, Megan asks for her life. The cruel General Yen falls in love for the naive and pure Megan and accepts her request to spare the life of Mah-Li against the will of his financial advisor Jones. Meanwhile Megan feels attracted by the powerful and gentle General Yen, but resists to his flirtation. When Mah-Li betrays General Yen and destroys his empire, Megan realizes that to be able to do good works, one has to have wisdom and decides to stay with him while the General drinks his bitter last tea.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of IMDb.)
Although I pride myself on (and encourage others to share) my ability to appreciate works or art — and entertainment — in the context of the time in which they were created and not the time in which they are being shown (because we do ourselves a disservice to penalize 20th century entertainment when it fails to conform to 21st century ideas), issues of racial stereotyping are often the most difficult images to navigate. The Pre-Code era, while mature and modern in their views on women and sexuality, were not above (what 21st century empathy would deem) insensitive portrayals of minorities. I find this difficult to excuse, principally because trying to do so would alienate the young audiences who I think would otherwise really enjoy these films. The Bitter Tea Of General Yen, with Nils Asther in full “Chinaman” wear, is not a truthful or respectable representation of the Chinese culture — collectively or individually. The only way to mollify this truth is to recognize the progressive nature of the content, and the cinematic techniques employed to make this film one of Barbara Stanwyck’s best Pre-Codes.
Interracial relationships were not only illegal for Americans in 1933, but they were also taboo in the films of the era. The nation’s growing fascination with oriental exoticism allowed for more of an exploration of their culture, but never with the frank consensual sexuality of this picture. It’s unlike anything we’ve covered on this blog before, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the film did poorly at the box office as a result. Let the record show, however, that the romance that develops is one of breathtaking electricity — and the kind of humanity that transcends cultural divides. In this regard, it’s a 1933 picture with a stance on race that 21st century audiences can support. And thank goodness for that, because it’s clear now what a brilliant and beautiful film Mr. Capra has delivered. As with most of the esteemed director’s films, the content of the picture refers not just to the written material and the story, but also to the visual language — the look of the film. The Bitter Tea Of General Yen, with its beautiful sets and haunting cinematography, is among the most aesthetically appealing pictures Film Friday has had the pleasure of hosting. (In fact, if Columbia wasn’t so strict on their Copyright rules, I’d love to show you a clip. Instead, I’ll implore you to seek out the film for yourself.)
In addition to Mr. Capra’s evident hand, we must give ample credit to the performances of Stanwyck and Asther, both of whom indulge in racial stereotyping of the other, but imbue their characters with an equal humanity — the kind that breathes not only reality into their scenes, but also the sensuous possibility of something metaphysical (and HOT). Because of the contrasting ethnicities of their characters, the intimacy doesn’t lose its potential to shock, and that is part of what makes the spark work. Their sexual tension, enriched by the gorgeous photography and poetic script (that actually succeeds more in its dialogue than its story), drives the film and mitigates the unfortunate representation of Oriental mythos as something almost necessary for the achievement of this supreme — and surprising — chemistry. And, boy, do they have chemistry. What a film! Once again, viewers must come prepared for a 1933 film, but I recommend The Bitter Tea Of General Yen to all. It is much more than it seems.
Come back next Friday for another Stanwyck Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment!