THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN —–director of the 1933 drama, Frank Capra: “I know it didn’t make money, but it has more real movie in it than any other I did.” Colombia czar Harry Cohn let producer Walter Wanger and Capra, who’d been successful delivering light fare, expend $1,000,000—a princely sum for the studio, any studio, during the Depression—toward a serious, “arty” subject that might snag the ambitious director coveted Oscar recognition. It didn’t manage that, or reap money, but it’s a heady piece of work, beautifully wrought, with standout acting, direction, camera work and production design. Add a then-taboo interracial romance and you’ve got a period gem that still glimmers seven decades on. *
China, the 1920s, Civil War rages. During the chaos of an embattled, evacuating Chapei, young American arrival ‘Megan Davis’ (Barbara Stanwyck, 25) gets into a dicey situation that ends with her knocked unconscious, and separated from her missionary fiancee. She wakes up a ‘guest’ of feared warlord ‘General Chen’ (Nils Asther), and over the course of a stay at his summer palace the two opposites–ethnically, culturally, spiritually—are mysteriously and irresistibly drawn to each other by a primal force that renders their life-experience differences trivial.
“Life at its best is hardly endurable.”
From the gripping opening sequence of societal panic (the nighttime, rain-swept, artillery-urged tumult of hundreds of extras presages the much-praised start of Capra’s later Lost Horizon), to the exotica of Chen’s residence—lavish, cruel, intoxicating— the visual palette is extravagant. Capra’s staging is superb, with Joseph Walker’s luminous filtered cinematography, Steve Goosson’s elaborate sets and a king’s ransom of the budget going to props and an array of antiques. There’s a startling expressionistic dream sequence; a delirious, sensual nightmare out of Dracula, with the added spice of then-dreaded miscegenation, that could give any of Josef von Sternberg’s Marlene Dietrich fantasies a run for the opium pipe.
Edward E. Paramore Jr.’s screenplay was worked up from a popular romantic novel written two years earlier by Grace Zaring Stone. It was the last of four pictures Capra directed Stanwyck in over a three-year period (Ladies of Leisure, The Miracle Woman, Forbidden), during which they had an affair that ultimately had her reject him (she was still unhappily married to abusive alcoholic Frank Fay), which no doubt made for some interesting and effective creative tension during the shoot. After rejecting a slew of tryouts, Capra picked Swedish silent-film heartthrob Nils Asther, 35, who, with a few hours of makeup, made a memorable General Yen; ruthless and sensitive, cultured and cunning, imperious and resigned. Today, of course, this wouldn’t fly (so much for actors being free to play any part: thanks p.c. pitchforkers), but at the time, there were, let’s see–um, NO Asian actors in Hollywood with star clout, so I guess we should just burn the film.
Puncturing the self-inflating hot air balloons of gasbag culture commissars is the presence of two class-act Asian performers in secondary roles. Japanese actress Toshia Mori, 20, plays Chen’s treacherous concubine, after Anna May Wong (Shanghai Express) proved unavailable. It was the most noteworthy role in the brief career of this striking actress, and she was awarded 3rd-billing. In an early role–as one of Chen’s officers, swain to his concubine, is veteran Richard Loo, brand new to the movie biz, the third of his eventual 172 credits.
Adding a good deal of grit is a keen job by Walter Connolly as Chen’s practical, amoral American financier. With Gavin Gordon, Clara Bandick and Emmett Corrigan. Cogerson has it grossing $2,400,000, nestling at #26 for the year. 88 minutes.
* Sample review of the day : Variety‘s Sam Shain called it “a queer story…Seeing a Chinaman attempting to romance with a pretty and supposedly decent young American white woman is bound to evoke adverse reaction.”
Stanwyck: “The women’s clubs came out very strongly against it, because the white woman was in love with the yellow man and kissed his hand. So what! I was so shocked (by the reaction). It never occurred to me, and I don’t think it occurred to Mr. Capra when we were doing it. I accepted it, believed in it, loved it.” Right on, Babs!
An example of white-heated overseas reaction, from an Australian rag called Truth, which sputtered “A loathsome Chinese bandit pawing and mauling a white woman…The mere thought is revolting. Yet this degrading spectacle was witnessed in a leading Sydney theater this week.” And so on.
Capra: “A cinematographer can do more than any other individual in portraying the mood of the story. The good cinematographer portrays that mood, lights his picture so that the audience doesn’t realize he has lighted it, gets over the proper effect so that the audience doesn’t realize he has done it.”
Stanwyck on Capra: “There were times you felt you weren’t being directed at all, but of course you were. You weren’t dumb enough to know that wasn’t the case. But he would come in the dressing room and he’d say, ‘Let’s talk about it.’ He didn’t say ‘Psychologically, do you think she would—?’ That always kills me somehow. I don’t know why, it usually makes me laugh. That’s much too analytical. It has to be from the gut. His role in life was not to probe people, but to watch them.”
Capra on Stanwyck: “Miss Stanwyck is a natural actress. A primitive emotional. I let her play herself, no one else.” “When she goes into an emotional scene, she’ll sweep you with her like a chip on a tidal wave.”