Wednesday, June 3, 2009

1933: The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra)

Released: January 3, 1933

Director: Frank Capra; Screenplay: Edward E. Paramore, Jr., based on the story by Grace Zaring Stone; Cinematography: Joseph Walker; Studio: Columbia Pictures; Producer: Walter Wanger

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Megan Davis), Nils Asther (General Yen), Toshia More (Mah-Li), Walter Connolly (Jones), Gavin Gordon (Dr. Robert Strife)

I have a confession to make, and it is one that goes against my usual classic Hollywood-centric perspective – I’ve never been a big Frank Capra fan. It isn’t that I necessarily dislike any of his work that I’ve seen, but outside of the most famous of all of his films (It’s a Wonderful Life) I have been rather indifferent toward him. My apathy hasn’t been the result of the usual complaint made against Capra – the “Capra-corn” label that derides his films for being overly sentimental or moralistic. I’ve actually been struck by how stretched such a claim can be, as there are times in Capra films where characters and situations are very realistic and relevant. But outside of It’s a Wonderful Life I found myself reacting to subsequent Capra films with lukewarm reactions.

Then, instead of plowing straight ahead in the Capra filmography, as I was doing after having started with It Happened One Night, I decided to take a step backward. I tried the less-renowned The Bitter Tea of General Yen and felt like I had discovered some kind of hidden gem. I’m perfectly aware of the fact that I discovered nothing, and that plenty of folks are familiar with it, but I’m amazed that this film is not more celebrated. In what I am guessing will differ from most others, I pick this one as tops for 1933.

The film opens to gorgeously chaotic scenes of 1920s Shanghai, showing the frantic pace of China at this time. With the country in turmoil, as various warlords and government factions begin to battle at the start of the Chinese Civil War, the city is nonstop commotion. Refugees are scattering, buildings are burning, and the opening shots reinforce this sense of confusion. These scenes are very darkly shot and edited at such a quick pace to perfectly convey the sense of chaos of the people. The other thing that struck me from these scenes is how overcrowded everything looks, as it feels like there are so many people jammed into shots that these cities are going to burst. The city genuinely feels miserable and absolutely frenzied.

It is into this environment that American Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) arrives with plans to marry missionary Dr. Robert Strife (Gavin Gordon). However, on the night of the wedding, Strife announces that he must postpone the nuptials in order to rescue a group of orphans in a nearby town. Rather than wait for him in the homes of fellow missionaries, Megan declares that she has come to China in order to assist her future husband. She sets out with Dr. Strife to participate in the rescue, which they believe to be a safe trip after supposedly obtaining travel permits from the powerful General Yen (Nils Asther). But while trying to make their way through the chaos of the city streets, the group becomes separated and Megan is knocked unconscious. When Megan comes to her senses, she is in the railcar of General Yen who explains that he rescued her from harm in the streets and is now transporting her to safety. Megan seems completely unaware of the fact that Yen has likely kidnapped her.

Megan is taken to General Yen’s summer retreat where he holds her as a captive. It is not as a lock and key prisoner, but it is captivity none the less. While under General Yen’s control, Megan becomes acquainted with the various underlings that work with the General. These include a fellow American, Jones (Walter Connolly), who is the chief strategist and financial adviser to Yen. She also becomes friendly with a servant/concubine Mah-Li (Toshia Mori) who begins to complicate Megan’s stay at the compound. It soon emerges that Mah-Li is a spy, conveying highly sensitive information concerning General Yen and his operations to rival factions in the civil war. After Jones alerts him to this fact, Yen sentences Mah-Li to death. She is saved only after Megan personally pleads for her life. Yen acquiesces, having become infatuated with the American woman, but asks that Megan offer her own life as a pledge to Mah-Li’s future good behavior. When Mah-Li continues her scheming, the tenuous relationship that has developed between General Yen and Megan is truly put to the test.

Stanwyck is excellent as usual, but the true star of the film is Nils Asther as the enigmatic General Yen. There is great irony in the Danish-born Asther, a star of the theatre in Sweden of all places, portraying a Chinese warlord. But he is outstanding in the role. The tension that is built in the relationship between the general and the naïve American is due to Asther’s ability to create a character that is mysterious. The reputation that is given to General Yen by the missionaries is one of an absolute monster, as someone who kills and pillages at will. Yet in his conduct toward others, Yen is surprisingly reserved. He is deliberate in both action and speech and seems calm in every situation. It is quite a contrast and leaves the viewer wondering what the true nature of General Yen is. In interaction with Megan he seems the perfect gentleman, being exceedingly courteous. And yet as casually polite as he is to Megan, he can just as coolly order the execution of Mah-Li. Asther is able to exploit this paradox in crafting a very measured character. This detached nature that he establishes for General Yen is believable and never reaches the caricature-level where the general comes across as a psychopath.

The other striking feature of the film is how uncompromising and brutal it is at times. Made in 1933, before strict Hays Code enforcement, Capra is able to get away with a bit more than would have been allowed in the near future. This means he is able to do things like showing prisoners being executed by firing squad at General Yen’s compound. In most films of this era you would hear the shots and maybe see the aftermath of the gunmen. Not here. Capra shows the entire sequence – taking aim, firing, bodies dropping. It is nothing overly graphic, but it is shocking (at least for someone like me who is not well-versed in Pre-Code cinema) to think of this coming from a film of the 1930s. While I don’t feel the need to go into great detail concerning the issue, the interracial relationship between General Yen and Megan is also remarkable. It is amazing that it made it through censors.

There are obvious drawbacks to the film. It would not be a stretch to claim that the portrayal of the Chinese people is patronizing. One need look no further than the opening minutes of the film, when a longtime missionary recounts the tale of a group of Mongolian people who were enthralled by his tale of the crucifixion. He later learned why they were so interested – soon after, they attacked a caravan and crucified the captives. “That, my friends, is China,” the missionary declares. In most instances, the Chinese people are similarly portrayed as exceedingly brutal. But I felt like the depth given to the General Yen character helped to soften some of this prejudice. He was ultimately shown to have a heart and be just as capable of acting out of something other than self-interest.

I’ll be interested to see just how big of an “upset” this is as a pick for the best of 1933. I have to admit that overall this is not a great year for me, at least in comparison to some of the years around it. But The Bitter Tea of General Yen is a film that would at least compete against competition of any year. It is intriguing for me to see another side of Frank Capra as a filmmaker and the photography of Joseph Walker is a great compliment to this darker style. At times, the film looks like a noir set in Shanghai, and instantly reminded me of a William Wyler film of seven years later, The Letter. Combine these strengths with the performance of Nils Asther and it is an outstanding film.

Rating: 8/10

Other Contenders for 1933: As I said, not a banner year for me, but there are a few other films that I considered. Fritz Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is intriguing but I don’t rank it with some of my other favorite Lang films. Barbara Stanwyck was in another legendary pre-code film this year, Baby Face, and her individual performance is better there than in The Bitter Tea. If you thought she was conniving as Phyllis Dietrichson, check her out as Lily Powers in Baby Face. My guess would be that the Marx Brothers classic Duck Soup will be the most popular choice, but not being the biggest fan of the Marx Brothers fan it’s not my selection. It certainly is funny, but not one I would list as an all-time favorite. King Kong is another film that I can appreciate for its historical value, but not a personal favorite.


  1. My Top Film of 1933: ZERO DE CONDUITE (Vigo)

    Runners-Up: DUCK SOUP (Marx Brothers)
    LITTLE TOYS (Sun Yu)
    GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (LeRoy)
    KING KONG (Cooper/Schoedsack)

    I agree that 1933 wasn't an especially great year, but this shortlist is very impressive. I do love the Marx Brothers and DUCK SOUP is their masterpiece. KING KONG is important for all sorts of reasons, and the musical GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 is a genre masterpiece. The little-seen Chinese film LITTLE TOYS is a shattering emotional experience, while your own #1 choice beautifully visualized here is not at all out of left field; it's a finally wrenching Capra masterwork with two extraordinary performances (which you also note eloquently) My own #1 film ZERO DE CONDUITE by Jran Vigo is a French film set in a boading school with surrealistic touches envisioning an anarchic environment brought on by beaurocratic injustices. It's frankly unforgettable.

    It's so true what you say about GENERAL YEN exhibiting a rarely seen darker side of Capra and al the Hays Code discussion is paramount.

    Great work here Dave! You are moving forward with authority and singular passion.

    Of course George Cukor's DINNER FOR EIGHT and 42nd STREET are other films that come close to any shortlist too. I agree that TESTAMENT isn't the Lang to choose.

  2. Dave – I have not seen this film therefore it will not be on my list however I like you, have misgivings about Capra. To me, his works are a mixed bag. When I watch “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, I do nothing but duck to keep from being hit by the Capra corn that is spitting off the screen like pellets from a shotgun. The film was on TCM the other night and I caught a few minutes of the scene where Smithy is touring the various D.C. monuments and the phony sentimentality just oozed off the screen and I started getting an allergic reaction and turned it off.

    That said, I love Jean Arthur and for me she is the best thing in the picture. (I guess you can pretty much figure when you do 1939 Mr. Smithy Goes to D.C. will not be on my list of best films for that year).

    Anymore, I do have to catch this film if for no other reason than Barbara Stanwyck whom I can never get enough of. My own list for 1933 would include “Gold Diggers of 1933”, “King Kong”, “Baby Face” (if for no other reason that Stanwyck), “Duck Soup”, “Dinner at Eight” and one of my two personal favorite Laurel and Hardy features “Sons of the Desert.”

    The more I think about this project you have engulfed yourself in, the more impressed I am. You have some tough decisions to make along the way.

  3. Oh God John, I couldn't disagree with you more on MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, which is unquestionably one of the greatest of all American films, nor do I find Capra even remotely a "mixed bag." In addition to MR. SMITH, I would add LOST HORIZON, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN and the masterful film here that Dave gave magisterial treatment to as bonafise and legitimate masterworks. His corn is at the center of Golden Age glorious Americana.

  4. As far as SONS OF THE DESERT, despite loving Laurel and Hardy more than I can express here, I have always found this film tedious and overrated among their superlative pantheon. I recognize however that I am in the minority. 1932's THE MUSIC BOX is far better in every way.

  5. Sam – We are probably going to have to agree to disagree about Capra. I don’t deny that “Mr. Smith” is considered a great American film, as are the other films you mention. I favor “It’s a Wonderful Life” over “Mr. Smith” anytime, truly a classic. For me though, and this is more personal taste than a knock on Capra’s talent “Mr. Smith” just pours the syrup on too thick for my taste. “Meet John Doe”, “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and “It Happened One Night” I find more to my liking. I do notice a similarity between Capra’s female leads in Doe, Deeds and Smith where a city slick female tries to change/use the hero but ends up falling in love with him.

    I personally admire Capra as an Italian immigrant who came here as a child with his family and made good at a time when it was rare for many Italian-Americans to reach that level of success.

    Wow! Now I am shocked that you find “Sons of the Desert” overrated. I do agree that “The Music Box” is a better film. I also think “Way Out West” is a better film, but “Sons” is up there in my book at least among their feature films. I do think they were never better than they were in their two-reelers.

  6. Thanks for the responses, guys!

    Sam - I have not seen the Vigo film that you have as your #1... Vigo's whole story (his films aside) is intriguing to me. I have seen "L'Atalante", but not this one which I also see listed among great films. On your recommendation, I will definitely check it out.

    John - Give "The Bitter Tea" a shot, I think that you'll be surprised how different it feels from other Capra films. Like I said, even the photography is darker, let alone characters and story. And I'm right there with you on Stanwyck. While she is a more kindhearted character in this film, nobody was ever better in playing the scheming femme fatale!

    And your right that there are some amazingly tough decisions involved with this countdown, but it's been fun... I'm getting to go back and watch and reexamine some of my favorite films of all time, which is never bad.

  7. General Yen is terrific, Busby Berkeley lands a mighty one-two punch, Duck Soup is what it is and King Kong is the eighth wonder of the world, but let me be the first to put in a word for Queen Christina, Rouben Mamoulian's sublime historical romance and the final pairing of Garbo and Gilbert.

  8. I should have mentioned one more film from 1933 that is on my list, "Gold Diggers of 1933." Just the final number (Remember My Man) makes it worthy of consideration.

  9. I love 'Dinner at Eight' (John Barrymore at his best), '42nd Street' and 'Footlight Parade' - must admit I'm another one who finds Frank Capra a mixed bag and sometimes too sentimental, although I do love 'Platinum Blonde' and 'It's A Wonderful Life'. I'd just recorded 'Mr Smith Goes to Washington' before reading Sam and John's comments, so am now wondering about it with slight trepidation!

    I will watch out for this one, though - annoyingly, I'd missed it on TV a day or two before you reviewed it! I thought I'd only have time to watch either General Yen or Mr Smith, so went for Mr Smith... Judy

  10. When it comes to 1933 I am not objective. My film that year is "The Invisible Man", not only because I watched it a hundred times as a kid but because it launched the career of the greatest supporting actor of all time, Claude Rains.

  11. How about a Berkley trifecta? 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade - whose musical sequences top them all! My problem is that no one of those films has the perfect balance of hilarious comedy (Gold Diggers wins)), brilliant choreography (Footlight Parade wins), and juggling of musical sequences (probably 42nd St., though all of them tend to cluster their numbers together). But between the three of them they do.

    So maybe I'll cheat.

    Haven't seen Gen. Yen - the first stumper on the list. I'm sure there will be many more to come...

  12. I'm going back to this posting to say that I've now seen 'The Bitter Tears of General Yen' and revisited your review, Dave - I'm very impressed by the film and must agree that it shows a darker side of Capra. Very black humour when Yen apologises to Megan for her having to witness the shootings of prisoners, and says (the wording may not be exact) "This will never happen again - I'll have them shot down the road in future." The dream/daydream sequences, showing Megan's secret desire for Yen, strike me as particularly daring and something which Capra would never have got away with under the code! Again, thanks for recommending this movie. Judy

  13. Judy - Glad to hear that you liked it. It's an interesting film to see if for no other reason than to see a little different side of Capra than what most people know. Fortunately, it's also a very entertaining movie.

  14. Thanks Dave. Oops, I meant the Bitter Tea, not tears - I'm getting mixed up with The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a title which in my own defence I believe was an allusion to this movie! Sorry about that.