THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN was the first film screened at Radio City Music Hall. Opening with great fanfare on January 3, 1933 the film was, unfortunately, pulled after only two weeks and disappeared from cinemas. The main complaint against it was that many viewers could not abide the idea of interracial romance and the subsequent fear of miscegenation (remember, this was 1933). The people involved with the production claim to have been surprised by the reaction of the public but one has to wonder. The head of Columbia studios had given Frank Capra the go-ahead to direct an "arty s**t" movie to impress the film cognoscenti so he could not have been too surprised, even though he authorized spending vast sums of money to its production.
Years later, inevitably, the movie was attacked for its 'orientalism' and the casting of Nils Asther as General Yen, the Chinese warlord who basically kidnapped the missionary Megan Davis (played by Barbara Stanwyck). All of this was too bad as THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN is more than a curiosity of its time. Briefly, Stanwyck arrives in 1920's Shanghai in the midst of a civil war to marry her fiancée of three years who has preceded her there. One of the first people she meets after landing is the eponymous general in mufti whose car has just run over her ricksha man. She berates the general but is urged by another American missionary to get along as she is, after all, getting married as soon as she arrives at the home of another long-time missionary (the scene of Capra's first piece of slyness, about which more later), but not before General Yen gives her an appraising look. Skipping through a series of misadventures, Stanwyck ends up on Yen's train back to the province he controls. The movie really takes off at this point and it would give too much away to tell what happens but suffice it to say that moral, spiritual, and amorous complications ensue leading to a penultimate scene that is shattering. I hope this will not come as a spoiler, but in the last scene Stanwyck doesn't say a word but her facial reactions entirely make up for her somewhat wobbly performance leading up to the finale.
The subversive aspect of this film goes beyond interracial romance and extends to questions of cultural misunderstandings involving war, betrayal, lust, and tyranny. Then there is the religious aspect. As the movie opens, there is a montage of the chaotic violence reigning in Shanghai in this period but meanwhile, back at the home of the missionary who is to officiate at Stanwyck's marriage, many of the Western missionaries are gathered but the talk is not of the chaos outside, but of the prospective bride. The obliviousness of these people is grotesque. One missionary bemoans that he has been in China for fifty years but doesn't understand the Chinese (and proceeds to illustrate his ignorance with a particularly ghastly story -- so much for fifty year's work). The subversiveness extends to the scenes in Yen's province (again, not to give anything away) but it forces the viewer to examine his or her feeling on several issues.
As stated before, the staging is magnificent. No detail was forgotten in the incredibly lush sets. The scenes involving the Moon are all dreamlike and they are reminiscent of the artistry of Gustav Klimt. The costumes are peerless. Stanwyck's dream sequence (which probably stoked the 'orientalism' complaints), while not as sophisticated as say, the dream sequence in Bergman's WILD STRAWBERRIES, nevertheless is effective and is actually a device which propels Stanwyck's personal awakening. Nils Asther gives a remarkable and convincing performance and he is ably supported by Walter Connolly as Jones, Toshia Mori as Mah-li, and Richard Loo as Yen's chief aide. Stanwyck is okay, but this is not her greatest performance. She does a good job, however, in conveying the changes in her views on several topics (again, no spoilers here).
This film has rapidly become one of my favorites and I hope others will find it to be as interesting.