Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Monday, August 16, 2010

The Bitter Tea of General Yen

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.



  1. That poster would cause quite a stir in 2010 let alone 1933! I've been meaning to see some pre-code films sometime since I've heard that the Hays Code really set back the content of films for over 30 years and am curious to see how pre-code films like this one hold up today.
    -Chris M.

  2. Well, the Hayes Code was a blessing and a curse. It did stifle many directors creatively. But it also forced directors and screenwriters to develop their skills so they could inject things into their films that the Code wouldn't allow. There's a reason why the Forties was considered the Golden Age of Hollywood. It was because of the Code that Hollywood learned things like subtlety and nuance. It forced them to be more creative and original than they ever have been before and since.

    And it was because of the Code that Hollywood conservative. It was because of this conservatism that the Hollywood New Wave was able to be so effective.

  3. Although Hollywood was forced to get more creative, it was because of censorship. I see your point though, if the Hays Code never happened it is possible that movies from the late 30s and 40s would have been different and we would be missing out on some classics and perhaps the golden age of Hollywood would never have happened.
    -Chris M.

  4. Exactly. Hollywood was forced to learn such techniques as subtlety and innuendo. The cinema is all the better for it.

  5. Nate, I am almost a whole year late in seeing this review! I can't tell you how impressed I am with your assessment of this movie. I only saw it a couple of years ago, thanks to TCM, the best thing that ever happened to us!

    I did not expect such a profoundly moving film way ahead of its time. Nils Asther, although not Chinese of course, gave a marvelous performance. To me, he did not have a stereotypical look -- it suited him well. Except for the dream scene, I felt that his character had dignity that was always denied to oriental characters (thinking of Boris Karloff as -- Dr. Wu, wasn't it? Suddenly I blanked..) Barbara Stanwyck gave her usual wonderful performance in portraying this complex character.

    General Yen was everything you described, but I see him as having a deeper core of longing for someone who wanted him for more than his power and money -- his culture had taught him that a woman's love or any kind of friendship did not matter, only the power to demand it. I think he was attracted to Megan partly from lust, but also because he came to realize that only for himself and his better nature would she want him. Power and money meant nothing to her. This aspect of General Yen does not show itself for a while, but evolves through the story's unfolding.

    Megan's attraction to him was for all the reasons you discussed. I think it was also a woman's inborn attraction to a powerful man, a handsome man, one who even in the role of kidnapper, saved her from danger and wanted to show her the luxury he could offer. To me, this was the core of Megan's fear of this man, and her terrible confusion about her feelings. General Yen was the last man on earth she would ever have dreamed of wanting, and her role as Christian missionary clashed with her desire for him so badly that she didn't recognize herself.

    I believe that General Yen's suicide, certainly because he had lost his power and honor, was also a way to protect Megan and keep himself from destroying her. Megan was reluctantly but powerfully compelled to finally give herself to him, and he knew what it would do to her, and eventually to himself.

    Nate, I didn't notice or even realize this was a Capra movie when I first saw it! I love Capra as he came to be known best, but what might he have done if this movie had been successful at that time! I am thrilled to find such a good review of a movie that should be better known!

  6. Wow.....you weren't kidding about posting a long comment....

    Let me say, if I had a dozen comments as good as this one my blog would be one of the most popular on the internet!

    First, I thought that Nils Asther's performance was amazing. As to why he didn't look very "oriental"...I have a theory...Hollywood didn't like the idea of a "regular-looking" Chinese person having a love affair with a white woman. The first time that an interracial relationship including an Oriental man was depicted was in Griffith's "Broken Blossoms." In that film, he was forced to depict their love as purely platonic. There was no kissing, hugging, or physical displays of emotion between the two...and even THAT caused a general outcry! So maybe they were afraid to make Nils Asther look too Chinese because they were afraid of the same thing happening.

    Also, the cynical part of my mind thinks that one of the reasons why General Yen committed suicide was so that the filmmakers didn't have to imply that they two hooked up, got married, and, GASP, had sex!!! This WAS right before the introduction of the Hayes Code, but most filmmakers were still uncomfortable with showing things like that, particularly if they were of different skin color! But whether or not the cynical voice in my head is right or wrong, General Yen's decision DOES afford a great amount of powerful drama.

    I also had no idea that this was a Capra film until long afterwards. Funny how these things turn out, huh?

  7. Your points about Nils Asther's look and his suicide are very good, and likely true. Perhaps that's why he looked so Caucasianly (is that a word? LOL) handsome to our eyes, and he certainly is the tallest Chinese person I ever saw!

    After code, movies had to punish pre-marital sex, adultery, stuff like that. I guess this pre-code was so controversial that punishment had to be meted out just for thinking about it in an interracial context. (Reminds me of George Carlin's hilarious explanation of sin to a Catholic boy, ever hear it! -- It's a sin to want to feel up Ellen, it's a sin to think about it, it's a sin to plan to do it, it's a sin to save up money for the streetcar to go do it, it's a sin to take her to a place to do it, and it's a sin to do it! Six sins in one feel, man! -- I thought I'd die laughing!)

  8. You know...it's one of Chinese cinema's dirty little secrets that most famous actresses are taller than the actors. So in many films they have to make the men look taller so they can be bigger than the women.

    I love Carlin. I should probably listen to more of his work....

    Have you seen "Broken Blossoms?" It's a fascinating film. If I'm not mistaken it's on youtube.

  9. I have seen "Broken Blossoms" and it's a favorite silent film of mine, along with The Crowd, Intolerance, Nosferatu and the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

    That bit from Carlin is on his album "Class Clown". It is one his best routines. The same album has his famous "7 Words You Can't Say On Television" shtick. Wonderful!

  10. You have great taste in silent film!

    Thanks for the Carlin recommendation. I'll look it up!

  11. Watching this now (2014) on the new 'Sony Choice Collection' DVD: the image quality is exceptional by standard-definition standards! Certainly on a par with, say, the Criterion Collection release of Josef von Sternberg's silent films -- and Capra's pictorial compositions and contrasts could give Sternberg a run for his money too.

    1. No kidding? I'll have to keep an eye out for that DVD. Thanks!

  12. Hello...I just happened on this site and saw the entry for this film...I have returned to college after many years and am studying film history ( my lifelong passion). In reading Victoria Wilson's book, " A Life of Barbara Stanwyck, Steel True" I was intrigued by the storyline of this film but so far have been unable to locate it on the internet. I have a number of film sites "Open Culture", "Film Classics", etc but cannot seem to find this particular film...I would appreciate any leads...Thank you

    1. To be honest, I saw this film because somebody had uploaded it to youtube. I think that it has been taken down now. You may have to pony up some cash for a DVD. Sorry!

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