There are many reasons to love and admire Barbara Stanwyck, not least of which is her versatility as an actress – in a film career that stretched beyond five decades she appeared in screwball comedies, melodramas, noir thrillers, musicals and westerns. Whatever the genre, she was at her best when playing a certain type of character – feisty, strong-willed women, who are prepared to think independently and defy convention when required. Megan Davis, the heroine of The Bitter Tea of General Yen, is such a person.
This was her fourth film with Frank Capra, who had already directed her in Ladies of Leisure (1930), Miracle Woman (1931) and Forbidden (1932.) (Their fifth and final film together, Meet John Doe, followed in 1941.) It is clear that Capra had a deep affection for the young actress, but how much she reciprocated his feelings in less certain. By the time Bitter Tea was made they were both married to other people, and it is tempting to read a poignant subtext into the film’s central theme of forbidden love. Reducing the film to this would do it a great disservice however. Capra, hoping to obtain his first Oscar, strove for high artistic standards and created a world of opulent oriental glamour, with lush sets gorgeously lit and photographed by cinematographer Joseph Walker, whose specially designed patent lenses captured Barbara’s face in radiant close-up:
Set in China during the civil war of the 1920s, the story is simple enough. Childhood sweethearts Megan Davis (Stanwyck) and Dr Robert ‘Bob’ Strike (Gavin Gordon) are engaged to be married, but haven’t seen each other for three years. Megan belongs to the ‘finest oldest Puritan family in New England’ and the film opens in Shanghai as the American mission community await her arrival, which is to be followed immediately by her wedding. They have barely had time to greet one another before news arrives of endangered orphans in nearby Chapei – and gallant Bob declares the wedding postponed as he dashes off to save the children. Megan accompanies him, but after being ‘roughly handled’ in a crowd she is knocked unconscious and wakes up on a moving troop train in the company of the notorious General Yen, played by Swedish actor Nils Asther in heavy oriental make-up.
The rest of the film follows events in the general’s sumptuous palace over the next few days, a situation that is further complicated by the actions of the general’s concubine Mah-Li (played by Japanese actress Toshia Mori). Neither of the female leads was the first choice – originally, Constance Cummings played the part of Megan with Anna May Wong in the role of Mah-Li. Capra too was a late arrival: despite the fine reputation enjoyed by Herbert Brenon for silent movies such as Peter Pan (1924) and Beau Geste (1926), he couldn’t work well with Columbia executive Harry Cohn and was dropped from the film in June. The poster below shows the original line-up:
The film was based on Grace Zaring Stone’s recently published novel, which – rather like Edith Hull’s The Sheik (1919) that inspired the 1921 Rudolph Valentino movie – explored what might happen when a morally upright white woman is plunged alone into a dangerously exotic eastern setting. There was no suggestion in the book of any sentimental feelings between Megan and the general, but Hollywood must have romance, and this requirement raised the difficult issue of miscegenation which was then still illegal in many American states; it was also one of the scenarios prohibited by the Motion Picture Production Code. This being the ‘Pre-Code’ era, Capra was able to be more daring – which is not to say that no-one objected, nor that the film (in both content and production) broke free from the inherent racism of the time.
What is intriguing about Bitter Tea is the way in which it puts forward some provocative and subversive ideas at the same time as reinforcing a number of embarrassing racial stereotypes. Both consciously and unwittingly, the film raises a series of fascinating questions about the clash of civilizations, cultural superiority, racial stereotypes, sexual politics, gender and power.
Despite her education and social status, Megan is clearly no match for Yen in theological debate, and indeed the film seems to support his accusation that her fine-sounding words are false. When she urges him to change his mind about Mah-Li she ends with a heartfelt appeal: ‘I promise you, for the first time in your life you’ll know what real happiness is.’ His decision to do what she asks leads instead to his downfall – a result that he accepts with Stoic equanimity. Megan, by contrast, is shown to be totally out of her depth, in a complex world she does not understand; her well-meaning but misguided actions will result in the deaths of those she sought to save.
As a final indictment of Megan’s Christianity, the document that betrays Yen is disguised as a prayer for forgiveness – her ignorance of Chinese script means that she is blind to the true meaning of the words.
This was the first ever movie to play at the vast hall, which had opened as a high class venue for vaudeville entertainment two weeks earlier. Unfortunately this was the at the height (or rather low point) of the Depression, and few could afford the $2.50 tickets. Poor attendances forced the owners to hastily reconstitute the building as a movie picture palace, and for their prestigious re-opening they paid $100,000 to rent Capra’s new film. It was scheduled to run for two weeks, but disappointing box office returns led the owners to pull the picture after only eight days, leaving them with a loss of over $20,000. Both Stanwyck and Capra later expressed their belief that the film’s poor reception was due to racist attitudes, not just in America but in Britain and other Commonwealth countries. A cursory skim through contemporary reviews suggests they were correct.
What can the film offer to modern audiences? To be fair, the use of ‘yellowface’ make-up and negative Chinese stereotypes is bound to jar with many contemporary viewers, but hopefully this should not distract from the sincere efforts made to challenge prejudices about the taboo of interracial romance. Despite its mixed messages, there is no denying the visual pleasure to be found in watching The Bitter Tea of General Yen: thanks to the designs of art director Steven Goosson, Joe Walker’s camera work and the costumes of Edward Stevenson and Robert Kalloch, the film looks stunning. Few things in Capra’s later work compare with the beautifully-lit, opulent interiors of General Yen’s palace, the carefully-orchestrated crowd scenes and the feverish expressionism of that erotic dream. Capra succeeded in making the arty-looking film he wanted, even if it failed to bring him his much-coveted Academy Award. He’d have to wait another two years for that.