Monday Movie: The Bitter Tea of General Yen, by David Bax
It’s almost funny, in a foul-tasting way, to read that the initial box office failure of Frank Capra’s 1932 The Bitter Tea of General Yen was attributed by some to racism on the part of moviegoers unwilling to accept the onscreen romance between a white woman and an Asian man. It’s difficult, especially from a present day perch, to see a film in which the aforementioned Asian man is actually played by a European in make-up as a victim of racism in addition to being a propagator of it. Add to that the pervasive “orientalism” of the whole thing and there are more than a few hurdles to clear to even begin to enjoy it. But beneath it all, there’s plenty worth watching.
Start with the fact that the film’s lead is the great Barbara Stanwyck. She plays Megan, the fiancée of a missionary who becomes separated from her betrothed in the midst of the Chinese Civil War and is taken in by General Yen (Nils Asther), a powerful and wealthy man who offers her refuge at his large estate while the fighting continues outside. Though she sees him as cruel and heartless, she nevertheless finds herself dreaming about him. Eventually, she inserts herself into his affairs in a way that may spell doom for both of them.
So often, when people talk of “pre-Code” Hollywood films, they speak in terms of salaciousness. They’re talking about movies like George Cukor’s Girls About Town, with its promiscuous gold diggers and wet t-shirts. The Bitter Tea of General Yen mostly eschews overt sexuality and instead earns its pre-Code stripes with its thorny moral examinations. For a prestige romance picture, there’s a surprising amount of death, much of it seen through the prism of Yen’s emotional detachment. But, in addition to being a love story, this is also a war film (even if most of the war takes place well offscreen). Surrounded by violence, Megan reorders her priorities and is flush with surprise at where they end up. It may not be lewd but it’s beguiling in its complexity.