The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

bitter tea of general yen.png

The Bitter Tea of General Yen is no doubt a perplexing film to come at today but, in some respects, that makes the experience all the more gratifying. There’s still something within it 80 years on that will simultaneously rub up against our contemporary perspective while also surprising us with a certain adroitness. So many issues are stacked up one on top of another, it’s a weighty task to begin trying to unpack them all.

Certainly, we have the strains of colonialism driven by western missionaries looking to share the Christian faith with the outer reaches of the world. In fact, we can probably derive some similar themes from films such as Keys to the Kingdom (1944) and Silence (2016) which provide a myriad of questions in their own right. Are these missionaries really making a difference? Is their Gospel even being comprehended? Should they be so bold as to force their beliefs on other people groups? All of these are up for valid consideration.

Racism must also be tackled whether it is shown to prove a point or is simply a casualty of a previous generation’s approach to Asian portrayals. We hear the words of one elderly lady who in one moment is going on about how lovely a wedding is going to be and then the next she shares her true sentiments about the Chinese.

“They’re all tricky and immoral. I can’t tell any of them apart. They’re all Chinamen to me.”
It’s this kind of narrow thinking, this blatantly obvious cultural insensitivity, laid right out in front of us. Thus, it seems likely the film’s main thesis might be to prove the exact opposite. That in itself seems monumental.

We have the casting of a Scandinavian in Nils Asther for the role of the Chinese general to contend with as well. And while it’s easy to get stuck on this or go the complete opposite end of the spectrum and take it for granted given the cultural moment it came out of, I hope to arrive at another conclusion. “Yellowface” always perturbs me and yet I also realize we have to understand the intentions and so I’m apt to read this picture much as I would Broken Blossoms (1919).

Whereas Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan work in stereotypes and the Fu Manchu archetype is the demonizing of a race, you do not quite get the same sense here. Even with the problems inherent in the characterization, what comes through emotionally is resonant. Then, further still is the landmark consideration of interracial romance, no doubt a turn off for many contemporary viewers — or at the very least taboo.

The whole narrative is really about the steadily evolving relationship between an American woman (Stanwyck) and this Chinese General (Asther) who keeps her in his domain on the pretense that it is for her own safety with the civil war still raging at large.

Megan is one of those naive yet well-meaning individuals who comes to a foreign land to do good. This is the imperative of “The Great Commission” and bless her soul, she takes her faith seriously, coming to join her soon-to-be husband wherever he may go.

But soon she is struck with a reality check. Her fiancee and she try and rescue some orphans caught in the middle of the hellish war zone, but the pass they’ve been provided is no good. In the ongoing turmoil, Megan finds herself brought to the palace of General Yen for safekeeping, her husband lost in the chaos.

What follows is an exercise not so much in polarizing romance, which would be the easier road to traverse, but instead cultural understanding through candid dialogue. He criticizes what he sees as a flaw in her man, that he will betray her every time for his God. Meanwhile, the idea all humanity is one flesh and blood is almost laughable to him.

And yet, again and again, he is drawn not only to her exquisite appearance but the undeniable sincerity that guides her every action. She, in turn, recognizes something of a hidden sensitivity welled up inside his soul. As he notes, “There has never been a people more purely artist, and therefore, more purely lover, than the Chinese.”

The most straining circumstance involves the General’s lowly concubine Mah-Li (Toshia Mia) who has all but disobeyed him. Megan chides him to forgive her even in her insolence (“I want you to see the beauty of giving love where it isn’t merited”) and for the greater offense of passing secrets which gives him the grounds to have her killed. You can either say he softens or finally lets down his guard. It’s semantics really.

This might very well be the Capra picture people don’t expect because it flies in the face of all the criticisms usually leveled against him. Specifically, that he always made overly sentimentalized films without a shred of hard reality. I’ve tried to push back against this presupposition countless times and I think The Bitter Tea General Yen is another fine counterargument. Look no further than the excruciatingly frank depictions of military executions, soldiers decimated by Gatling guns,  betrayal, suicide, and near surrealistic dreams that invade a woman’s consciousness.

However, it’s difficult not to begin comparing it most obviously to Shanghai Express (1932), a picture that reveled in its atmosphere and featured Josef von Sternberg’s visual infatuation with Marlene Dietrich. Frank Capra does Stanwyck justice in his own right because there’s no doubt she’s vibrant and alluring throughout. It’s brought into sharp relief through numerous stunning close-ups that capture the softness of her features. Not to mention the tears. Something that makes her different and more vulnerable than her German contemporary.

But we must ask the question. Is it a type of Stockholm Syndrome? Is it a true romance or simply an affection for a man who had more beauty, more artistry, than she would have initially given him credit for? I’m not sure we know and the ingeniousness, I realized retrospectively, of the film’s ending, is that we never hear Barbara Stanwyck’s thoughts on the matter.

Walter Connolly just won’t shut up and he’s supposing all these different things. Recalling what a great guy the General was, considering what Megan will do next, and summing up the General’s spiritual proclivities. Maybe he’ll come back in some new incarnation. But the lady says next to nothing and there is a cryptic power in this. Because The Bitter Tea of General Yen allows us to ruminate over the material and draw out conclusions of our own.

3.5/5 Stars

Man’s Castle (1933)

220px-Mans-castle-1933.jpg“Blessed are the poor in spirit for their’s is the kingdom of heaven”

With Frank Borzage taking on both WWI and WWII in his career it only makes sense that he would take on the event that in many ways bridged them — The Great Depression.

It’s fairly early on in the story where the local resident Ira (Walter Connolly), a minister by day and a night watchman by night cites the Sermon on the Mount and later references 1 Corinthians 1:27. The moral being: Blessed are the poor in spirit and God chooses the lowly things of this world and the despised things to nullify the things that are strong.

If nothing else a character such as Ira is one of the lovable figures in this fairly dank and dreary tale but his words breathe an inherent worth into the masses of everyday individuals slogging their way through the Depression.  In many ways, this film is a eulogy to those very people, the downtrodden, the poor, the heavy-laden folks.

But sometimes those same folks seem to come in all shapes and size making it nearly impossible to get a line on them. We first meet Bill (Spencer Tracy) a veteran fast-talking Artful Dodger-type who works the streets of New York in his top hat and tails. In this very first sequence, he’s in the middle of a seemingly frivolous activity offering breadcrumbs to the pigeons.

He catches the young gal (Loretta Young) next to him giving him the eye and calls her out. Although she might not look it, she’s destitute, going without food on two days now so he begrudgingly agrees to treat her to some fine dining. Of course, when the time to pay the check comes so comes the big reveal. Bill is just about as broke as Trina and they get thrown out (at least with full bellies).

For the rest of the film they hold up together in a shantytown in the local Hooverville where the existence is sparse but Trina exists as a happy homemaker whose indefatigable spirit never seems to dampen. Bill spends his days drifting finding bits and pieces of work here and there and in the evenings he comes home to his gal. Any other circumstances and their lives would seem fairly normal.

He playing the breadwinner. She playing his devoted spouse. Except he gets the bread by serving a summons to a local stage performer and stilt walking in his free moments, among other things. But he scrapes together enough to get Trina a new stove for their hovel. The fact that they remain unmarried is invariably inconsequential and Trina’s not looking to tie down her man — she’s far too understanding and open-minded for such thoughts.

And although partially unbelievable its integral in how Tracy’s protagonist reveals his true character. Yes, he is a man with restless feet constantly playing the curmudgeon — disdaining the “ball and chain.” However, there’s an old adage that would be apt in describing him. His bark is worse than his bite.

There’s no conceivable way that two individuals such as this should remain together and even in the film there are moments when their symbiotic relationship seems to be splitting at the seams.

Tracy is brusque and surprisingly stink-eyed but as is his custom he comes around and has the audience on his side for the very fact that Loretta Young is so devoted to him. On her part, the sprightly and ever-effervescent Young at the ripe young age of 20 might be skinny but she holds her own and is crucial to making this love story something of substance.

Borzage once more dissects a romance that’s, in this case, one of the most unlikely pairings but Bill ceaselessly subverts our expectations. He’s not such a bad cad after all and Trina makes him be better than he has any right to be.

In this specific instance, the two lovers get their happy ending clutching each other closely in a pile of hay aboard a freight train. The destination nor the future seems to matter because the underlining factor is they have each other. You’ll be hard-pressed to find many affluent people in this picture and this is an important distinction to make. This is not a screwball comedy. On the contrary, center stage is given to members of society who are usually marginalized and it comes off exceedingly well thanks to Tracy and Young.

3.5/5 Stars

Note: It’s most likely that the cut you will see is the 1938 reissued version following the installation of the Hays Codes. I’m not actually sure if an original print is still available or if it’s considered lost.

Nothing Sacred (1937)

 13094-nothingsacred2Before His Girl Friday (1940) came, there was another screwball comedy about journalism, the perfect scoop, and deception. After getting on the bad side of his boss, newsman Wally Cook (Frederic March) is demoted from the living and forced to write obituaries. It’s quite the awful setup and Cook desperately looks for another story to get him in the good graces of the Morning Star’s editor.

The perfect news flash has just come up in the form of a woman who is soon going to die of radium poisoning, and so Wally Cook goes to meet her. Heading up from New York, he ends in the one horse town in Vermont. He meets a lot of unobliging people whose vocabulary is limited to “Yup” and “Nope.” He finally comes across the crying girl who has just left an appointment with a doctor. He comforts the girl cheering her up by promising a trip to the big city where she will be treated like royalty (And he’ll get his story). So Hazel Flagg soon becomes the sweetheart of New York with public appearances at Madison Square Garden, parades, poems, articles and special honors. It’s all going according to Cook’s plan, the only thing is that Hazel is not actually ill.

That’s a wrench in the plan and soon it becomes evident that Cook will look like a cad. To make matters worse, he’s falling for her and his editor Oliver Stone is all over him. Now he must take part in Hazel’s charade, despite his annoyance. She too is annoyed and ends the game so the two lovebirds can elope. Still, the story of Hazel is given a romanticized ending that the public deserves.

Frederic March is decent as the desperate and long-suffering journalist. Carole Lombard is her typical light-headed, whimsy, high-strung, scatterbrained, sniveling self. It proves to be a volatile combination partnered with Ben Hecht’s script. The news industry loses a lot of its self-respect for the sake of laughs because nothing’s sacred. Some might be interested to know that it was shot in glorious technicolor and it was the only time Lombard would appear in a technicolor film. She would, of course, die in a tragic plane crash in 1942.

This film was quite short so the story moved quickly and there were definitely some screwy moments. I am however partial to His Girl Friday and some of the other more well-known screwballs.

3.5/5 Stars