Directed by Frank Capra
The United States of America
There is an old Chinese saying that goes, “May you live in an interesting time.” This seemingly innocuous statement is not a blessing, but a curse. In a society that so values balance and stability, to live in a time of change and upheaval is to live in a time of great loss and hardship. As a character in Frank Capra’s forgotten The Bitter Tea of General Yen explains, “Life is cheap in China.” Set against the backdrop of the Chinese Civil War in the early 1930s, such is the situation that the characters in Capra’s film find themselves thrust into. But The Bitter Tea of General Yen does not limit itself to being set in a time of great upheaval. In fact, the film itself represented a monumental paradigm shift in the way that Hollywood approached interracial relationships. As one of the first films to depict interracial sexual attraction, it originally tanked at the box office. The public was not ready, or not willing, to entertain the idea that people of different races could fall in love, or lust. Since its release, Capra would go on to direct many great American classics, such as It Happened One Night (1934) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). But to those who know, The Bitter Tea of General Yen is one of Capra best, and most daring, films.
The film opens on a tumultuous night in a Chinese city being ravaged by war. As the troops from both sides move in to attack, the civilians struggle to escape the city. But amidst the chaos and confusion of a full scale urban evacuation, a group of foreigners gather together in their best suits and dresses and exchange pleasantries. These are the missionaries who have come to do the Lord’s work in the land of the heathen. On this night of death and destruction, they have gathered for the wedding of one of their most prominent members. The betrothed missionary is set to marry Miss Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck), a fresh face from the states eager to help in the Lord’s work. But before they can be married, the couple announces that they must enter the war zone to rescue a group of orphans.
To get the orphans to safety, they need a travel permit from a local general. The only one in the area is the ruthless General Yen (played in yellowface by Swedish actor Nils Asther). A cruel man, he laughs at the idea of rescuing orphans because they are worthless. When they convince him to write a pass, he writes a fake one in Chinese that insults them. As they rush to the orphanage, oblivious to the danger that they face with a fake pass, they become separated. Davis is then kidnapped by General Yen and taken aboard his military train.
She awakes in his summer palace to the sound of prisoners being executed by a firing squad outside her window. When she tells General Yen to stop, he responds by telling his men to take the prisoners down the road where the noise won’t bother her. Clearly, General Yen is a man whose values are opposed to Davis’. In fact, General Yen despises missionaries. But for some reason, the two slowly become attracted to each other.
To Davis, there is something seductive about General Yen. Although the film establishes that she is being drawn to him, it keeps the cause of her affection ambiguous. She spends the entire movie trying to make him change his ways. Could it be that she sees him as just another possible convert? Or does she see him as something exotic and exciting to her puritanical New England sensitivities? In one of the film’s most famous sequences, she dreams of a stereotypical evil Chinaman lunging at her. She is saved at the last moment by a man dressed in Western style clothes who knocks the Chinaman away. When she embraces her rescuer, he rips off his clothes and reveals himself to be none other than General Yen. Such powerful psychodrama was practically unheard of in pre-Code Hollywood. The sequence establishes that General Yen has infected her mind.
But what of General Yen? He holds Davis’ beliefs in contempt. So why does he become so enraptured with her? Maybe by seducing Davis, General Yen is passive aggressively attacking the Western culture that he despises so much. Could it be that he sees Davis as a challenge? After all, as a general, he has everything his heart could desire: women, money, and an army of men willing to give their lives for him. Perhaps he sees Davis as a final conquest.
Whatever the reason, their relationship is thought provoking on two different levels. The first is in the psychological ramifications of their forbidden love. The second is in the cultural clash that the two create. Davis is a beacon of Western Christian morality; chaste, forgiving, selfless. General Yen represents the Chinese Hollywood stereotypes of the early 1930s; greedy, conniving, and ruthless. Davis is an idealist who believes that with God’s help any problem can be resolved. General Yen is a callous pragmatist who understands that whoever has the money and the weapons has the power. Throughout the film they try to convert each other to their own ways of thinking. But each instance fails.
Things come to a head when General Yen discovers that one of his concubines is an enemy spy. Davis, who had befriended the woman, goes on a long tirade where she begs him to forgive her and let her live. General Yen acquiesces and pardons her. But he knows that she will betray them both. His rational for giving in to Davis’ demands was to make a point. General Yen had no intentions but to “convert a missionary.” For the concubine does exactly what General Yen expected: she sells him out to the enemy.
As the film ends, his enemies have discovered the stash of his money (the only thing keeping his men loyal to him). As they approach, General Yen drinks a cup of poisoned tea in his empty chambers. At his side, wearing a bridal gown meant for his future wife, Davis sits and kisses his hand. Besides the stirring artistry of the scene and the rest of the film (courtesy of photographer Joseph Walker who shot it through filters and used highly textured shadows), this sequence provides several paradoxical interpretations. It was Davis’ naivety in both her faith and the powers of forgiveness that doomed the man that she loved. The idea of a film that subversively argues against the teachings and practicality of religion was unheard of in those days.
Despite the film’s institutionalized racism (having the lead actor perform in yellowface), The Bitter Tea of General Yen is a powerful and critical film in the development of race relations in the cinema. Ignoring the psychoanalytical interpretations, the core story is of an American woman and a Chinaman falling in love. It was for this very reason that the film bombed. Audiences rejected it, women’s clubs condemned it, and it was denied a rerelease by the Production Code Administration. In Britain, the film was banned in several areas for miscegenation. Capra was forced to abandon serious dramas and direct screwball comedies and more inspirational films. For many years, the film was forgotten.
But thankfully, today we can marvel at The Bitter Tea of General Yen and recognize it as the masterpiece that it is. Stanwyck and Asther give powerful performances that rock the film to its core. Frank Capra showed an uncanny ability to control and choreograph gigantic crowds of extras, making the scenes where people flee from the city seem like footage from a newsreel or documentary. The film is early Hollywood melodrama at its height accompanied by brash psychological implications that were ahead of its time. A moody examination of forbidden love and its consequences, The Bitter Tea of General Yen is Frank Capra’s most underappreciated film. A bitter film with a bitter climax and a cynical attitude, it is nonetheless one of the sweetest films of the early 1930s.