Frank Capra is one of those directors I thought I pretty much knew when it came to style. The everyday American, the humour, the gentle wisdom, the often feel-good charm of films like It Happened One Night, It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr Deeds Goes to Town, and (this is one of my favourites, the ultimate in whacky humour) Arsenic and Old Lace.
If I hadn’t known Frank Capra had also directed (well before any of these films I’ve named) the unusual and erotic The Bitter Tea of General Yen, I don’t think I’d have billed this as a Capra film. There is a sensuality about it, a boldness and an air of exotica that is uncharacteristic of Capra’s more popular works. Of course, part of that is due to the fact that the Hays Code, while it had been introduced in 1930, was not yet being strictly enforced (that was to kick in only around 1934), but even otherwise, there is something about this film that struck me as unlike Capra.
But, to start at the beginning. The Bitter Tea of General Yen begins in Shanghai, during a civil war. It’s pouring rain outside, refugees are streaming into Shanghai, and a group of missionaries have gathered at the home of one of them to celebrate a wedding. One of their group, Robert ‘Bob’ Strike (Gavin Gordon) is about to marry his childhood sweetheart, Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck). Bob and Megan haven’t met for the past three years, but Megan is on her way now from America, about to arrive in Shanghai so that she can marry Bob.
Megan’s arrival in Shanghai is a bit of a culture shock for her: the crowds of refugees, pushing and shoving—it’s all quite unsettling.
One of the missionaries comes to receive her when she arrives and helps Megan into a rickshaw. En route, though, there’s a mishap—the rickshaw puller falls down, Megan is thrown from her seat, and she sees a car screech to a halt amidst the crowd. The rickshaw puller is thrashed soundly, and a wealthy-looking man (Nils Asther, in yellow face) gets out of the car.
Megan, shaken and annoyed at the way the poor rickshaw puller was beaten, starts a tirade directed at the stranger, but when she sees he’s bleeding from a head wound, she offers her handkerchief. To this, the man simply says (as he pulls out a handkerchief from his sleeve) that he has one of his own.
This is obviously an important man too, because right in front of Megan’s surprised eyes, another car draws up and he gets into it. With him is an overdressed, much-bejewelled and heavily made up young woman (Toshia Mori). The car moves off, Megan’s escort fetches her another rickshaw, and she’s taken to the house where she’s going to be married to Bob.
Or not right now, as it turns out. Bob, arriving a short while later, brings the news that a missionary orphanage in Chapei (today Zhabei, a neighbourhood in Shanghai) is in serious danger. The orphanage is in the heart of the battlefield, so to say, and he needs to approach an important official to get a pass so that he can rescue the children and bring them to safety. The wedding will have to be postponed: just a couple of hours.
Megan, instead of being disappointed, eagerly jumps to Bob’s side. This is what she came to China for, to help. She will go with Bob, and they’ll bring the children here.
First, though, Bob stops at the office of the local warlord, General Yen (who turns out to be the man Megan had encountered earlier: not that Megan meets him now, since she waits in the car). Yen is with his financial advisor, an American named Jones (Walter Connolly) and both seem leery and somewhat scornful of missionaries.
When Bob comes pleading for the pass, General Yen (who discovers that Bob has put his wedding on hold for this task) asks him if he can read Chinese. Bob says he can’t, not yet, and so he doesn’t realize that what General Yen writes on the ‘pass’ doesn’t mean what Bob thinks it does:
Bob and Megan get to the orphanage in Bob’s car, but the area is a mess. Bullets are flying, fires are raging. A group of soldiers intercepts them and when Bob shows them the ‘pass’, they cannot stop laughing. But they let the two through, anyway.
The female missionary informs them that only six children are now left—the others have been taken to safety by friends—so she, Bob and Megan gather up the children and try to get out. The soldiers they’d met earlier have, in the meantime, driven off in Bob’s car. So the three adults and six children have to get back as best as they can, however they can. Stopping now and then to take cover from bombs and gunfire, waiting for an armoured car to go thundering by, they get to a place that’s teeming with people, all hurrying to get to safety.
Rickshaws are in short supply. Bob gets the missionary from the orphanage into one along with four children, but even as he’s about to put the other two children into a rickshaw, a passerby with whom Bob had been in a tussle hits Bob on the head with a stick. Megan leaps to the rescue and bundles the almost-unconscious Bob into the rickshaw along with the children—and is then, in turn, knocked down. The crowd closes in and an unconscious Megan doesn’t even realize that a car has pulled up nearby…
When she comes to, Megan is lying in bed in a moving train. A familiar face—a woman whom Megan comes to know later is Mah-Li, General Yen’s concubine—offers her tea and looks after her. Shortly after, General Yen enters (Megan recognizes him only as the man to whom she had offered a handkerchief; she doesn’t know that this is General Yen).
As he enquires after her welfare, Mah-Li scurries about, making him comfortable: putting a cushion behind his back, placing a blanket across his knees. She then lies down on a pile of cushions beside Megan’s bed and looks up, pointedly, at General Yen. Above her, unconsciously paralleling Mah-Li’s pose, is Megan, stretched out too. General Yen’s gaze travels from one woman to the other, from Mah-Li to Megan. And Megan, meeting his gaze, recognizes the emotion in his eyes. She pulls the covers up.
Nothing is said, but in the glances that are exchanged, a lot is communicated. General Yen no longer finds any use for Mah-Li (who is offended and resents this), and he is definitely attracted to Megan—who is unsettled by this surprising and unexpected attention.
Over the next few days, Megan—now installed as a ‘guest’ in the general’s summer palace (and woken up rudely in the morning to the roar of guns: a firing squad is getting rid of the general’s enemies)—tries everything she can to get General Yen to send her back to Shanghai. Megan, anyway, is startled and frightened when she learns who her host is: in the very brief while she had been with the missionaries before setting off on this adventure, she had heard about just how cruel and brutal General Yen is.
He makes no attempt to hide his fascination for her, and Megan finds herself increasingly torn. On the one hand, she hates the calm matter-of-fact way he deals out death. On the other, she dreams of him…
I admit at one stage I thought this would end up as one of those soupy Mills & Boon-style romances that glorify the Stockholm Syndrome, making the white woman fall head over heels in love with her exotic, non-white captor. All convenient and neatly tied up in a happily-ever-after end.
Fortunately, there is a twist to The Bitter Tea of General Yen that redeems it from this level of triteness. Not enough to make it one of Frank Capra’s best, but still. At any rate, it’s an unusual film in that it shows an interracial romance. For 1932, that’s daring, I guess.
What I liked about this film:
The beauty of it, the gorgeous cinematography. There were lots of frames here where I was too busy admiring the sheer visual beauty of it to pay much attention to the rest.
Barbara Stanwyck as Megan and Toshia Mori as Mah-Li, respectively. I thought the acting of these two, in particular, was excellent.
And, lastly, the fact that an attempt seems to have been made to maintain a sense of realism. For example, the Chinese always speak between themselves, not in English, but in their own language. Plus, nearly all the actors who play Chinese are of East Asian origin (which did make me wonder, though, why one of them wasn’t roped in to teach Nils Asther how to correctly use a pair of chopsticks). The yellow face is limited to Nils Asther as General Yen…
What I didn’t like:
Nils Asther in yellow face. Yes, I do know that this was an era when lead actors of East Asian (or generally non-Caucasian origin) were a rarity, if not an unknown commodity. And, even if there was a Chinese or other Asian actor who could have been cast as General Yen, would it have been acceptable for him to lock lips with Barbara Stanwyck? Or is the physical intimacy between the ‘yellow swine’ (as Megan calls General Yen) and the white woman allowed only because the actor, after all, is white? (This, obviously, was not enough to appease audiences back then: The Bitter Tea of General Yen was at the receiving end of a good deal of racist flak).
I do wonder, though, if Frank Capra meant to highlight racism when he included it in the film. In the beginning of the film, one of the missionaries—in Shanghai to bear the white man’s burden—refers to the Chinese as ‘tricky, treacherous and immoral’. This, to give Capra the benefit of doubt (which, I think, is borne out by the way the film ends), seems to suggest that he was showing the hypocrisy of those who claimed to regard all mankind as one.
But the overall depiction of the Chinese—exotic, oversexed, wild, and unscrupulous—strikes me as definitely racist.
Of course, this is me looking at a film more than 85 years after it was made, and a lot has changed since then. For nothing else, The Bitter Tea of General Yen is worth seeing for the beauty of its visuals. And yes, the dream sequence, though very brief, is good.