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.