The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932)

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.

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Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Fellow blogger and Cary Grant fan Sabrina Mathew’s sometime-ago link to this stunning slideshow of the actor made me take a silent vow to do a Grant post soon. It’s taken a while, mainly because I wasn’t able to make up my mind whether I wanted to review Arsenic and Old Lace, Charade, or Operation Petticoat—all classic Grant comedies—but the wait’s finally over. I’ll do Operation Petticoat and Charade later; for now it’s this hilarious, sometimes slapstick, dark comedy directed by Frank Capra, that I remember as being the first Cary Grant film I ever saw. It also remains one of my favourites—across time, genres, actors, everything.

Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace

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Westward the Women (1951)

On International Women’s Day, I’d like to raise a toast to all the women I admire. My mother, my sister, sundry relatives, old school and college friends whom I haven’t seen in years, ex colleagues, and even some women I’ve only met in cyberspace but whom I nevertheless respect and admire (memsaab, bollyviewer, and Banno: this is for you). And to Sabrina Mathew, one of the most intelligent, well-read and amazing people I’ve ever met. Here’s to all of us!

Ahem. That sounds like a dedication on a book or an Oscar acceptance speech. And though I mean it sincerely, this perhaps isn’t the forum to get emotional and teary. So back on track, and this time with an unusual film: a Western in which though the star is Robert Taylor, the real heroes are all heroines. A good watch for Women’s Day.

Westward the Women

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