Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Bitter Tea of General Yen

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) is a bizarre, exotic adventure set in Shanghai, which gave Frank Capra chance to dress his star, Barbara Stanwyck, up in amazing Mandarin Fashions and look seductive. It is often compared to Marlene Dietrich's The Lady from Shanghai. Though Babs plays a missionary in this one and Dietrich's Shanghai Lily couldn't be further from that profession. Megan Davis gets kidnapped on her wedding night by a Chinese warlord, General Yen (Nils Asther, a Dane in unconvincing make-up) after she and her husband try to rescue a trainload of orphans. At first Megan resists General Yen, but after a dream in which she imagines him by turns in Western clothes and sensitively sophisiticated and by others as as a monstrous charicature, she begins to soften to his charm. She interferes when he plans to have one of his concubines executed for disloyalty and he challenges her faith by telling her he will let the woman live, but take Megan's life instead if there is another betrayal. In true pre-code fashion the worst of humanity is confirmed and romantic love triumphs in spirit at the conclusion of the film. Stanwyck is a bit out of place in the settings and if feels wrong to have her sitting around looking glamorous all the time. Even further from home, is Frank Capra. With no humor and no uplifiting statement about humanity in crisis, I can't imagine what he was thinking.


kda0121 said...

I recorded this when it was recently aired on TCM and haven't gotten around to it yet. All I've previously read says that it is a bona fide classic. Even Leonard Maltin gives it 3 1/2 stars out of 4. Perhaps the hokey Chinese make-up and story line were just a bit too dated for you, Jen. I will have to watch it soon before I pass final judgment.

Jennythenipper said...

It's certainly an interesting movie and the cinematography is gorgeous. I just think Stanwyck and Capra were both out of their element in what was certainly Von Sternberg/Dietrich territory.

kda0121 said...

I just finished watching Bitter Tea and enjoyed it immensely. Jen, you are right in that the movie had the look and feel of a Von Sternberg movie. The back lighting, soft focus and glitter are certainly elements we associate more with Von Sternberg than Capra. That being said, Capra and his oft used DP Joseph Walker created a beautifully shot film, so visually stunning.

I hate to say it, but in spite of how much I enjoyed the movie, I thought Barbara Stanwyck was miscast as Megan. She just seemed to worldly and experienced for the role of a missionary. The fact that they had her smoke detracted from her credibility. I think a more innocent, demure type would have been better suited. I can see Jean Arthur, Claudette Colbert or Myrna Loy as being better suited for the role.

I would hate to pigeonhole Capra by saying he was out of his element with this. He really didn't hit full stride with the social commentary pictures until Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, made three years after Bitter Tea. In fact, one of my favorite Capra pictures is Lost Horizon, with another Asian locale.

As to Nils Asther, I think he delivered as credible performance as is possible for a Caucasian in Chinese make-up. The film was daring for its day, even for precode, with the hint of an interracial relationship.

All in all, it may not be Frank Capra's best, but it's pretty good.