At first glance I (mis)read the caption as ‘Dr Phibes’, the vengeful protagonist played by Vincent Price in The Abominable Dr Phibes (Fuerst, 1971) but there’s a good case to be had for making an equally memorable film about the man who built the House of Mystery.
Dr John Samuel Phene FRIBA, FRGS (1824-1912) – architect, property developer, traveller, collector, scholar and antiquarian – studied at Kings Lynn Grammar School, Durham University and Trinity College Cambridge before being articled to the firm of an architect by the name of Hardwick.
He seems to have inherited some property in Chelsea sometime before 1850, and in the following years he had constructed a number of buildings in what would become Oakley Street, Margaretta Street and Terrace (both named after his wife Margaretta Forysth, whom he married in 1850), Phene Terrace and Upper Cheyne Row. The Phene Arms was built in 1853 and is still a popular pub to this day. Phene had it built to provide a social hub for local tenants and he seems to have been a progressive thinker, planting trees on both sides of Oakley Street ‘to purify the air and help prevent epidemics.’
From his house at 32 Oakley Street he supervised the construction of ‘The House of Mystery’ on the corner of Upper Cheyne Row. Work seems to have begun in the early 1900s, and its curious appearance led locals to call it the ‘Gingerbread Castle.’ Phene, however, called it ‘The Chateau’ and a close-up of the lettering above the doorway reveals the words: ‘Renaissance du Chateau de Savenay’ – rebirth of the castle of Savenay – in honour of the area in France’s Loire valley that Phene claimed as his ancestral home.
It’s a curious (albeit impressive) piece of work that examines the links between diverse traditions of sun and serpent worship around the world, from the Scottish Hebrides (where Phene spent several years and considerable expense looking for carved stones depicting serpents) to Egypt, America, Mexico, Greece and the west coast of Africa. The insights into ancient history might (or might not be) valuable, but the paper reveals some intriguing details about contemporary events: a footnote on p.4 informs us that ‘A curious illustration of fondness for serpents exists at Chelsea at the present time, which has led to alarm in the neighbourhood.’
A full list of his published work would be too long to detail here, but as a Life Member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science he presented papers at a number of their annual meetings, including ‘On some Evidences of a Common Migration from the East’ (Brighton, 1872) and ‘On the District of Mycene and its early Occupants.’ (Plymouth, 1877.) The British Library lists five publications:
Reptile Tumuli. A lecture … Reprinted from the ‘Paisley and Renfrewshire Gazette.’ [16 pages]
Paisley : J. & J. Cook, 1871
Records of the Past. A lecture. [16 pages]
Paisley : J. & J. Cook, 1873
On the Causes of Art: with an outline of the origin and progress of art from prehistoric to modern times … A discourse … Reprinted from ‘The British Architect.’ [19 pages]
Manchester ; London ; Glasgow, 1874
Victoria Queen of Albion : an idyll of the world’s advance in her life and reign.
London: Blades, East and Blades, 1897. [165 pages]
This was written in verse, with twelve pages of plates, plus an appendix carrying article on Roman London – presumably by Phene – which appeared in several newspapers and magazines in 1896
Exhibits by Dr. Phene in the Ecclesiastical & Educational Exhibition in the Imperial Institute, Kensington, October 7th to 14th 1899. [8 pages]
His long-standing interest in Scottish antiquities confirmed by a ‘Photograph of wooden idol from deep peat in Scotland’ taken by Phene in 1900 and registered with the Copyright Office. At the same time he also registered his ‘Photograph of the Great Stone Ship Temple in Minorca. (Plate 1 of group of ten)’ and ‘Photograph of remains of pre-Roman and Old Roman London, sculptured masonry now in the Guildhall Museum, to illustrate Mr Roach Smith’s discovery of Sculptured Masonry in the foundations of the old Roman wall of London, testifying to a Pre-Roman stone built city of the Trinobantes (Plate 5 of group of five)’ – further evidence of his fascination with ancient stones.
Although sometimes referred to as a reclusive character, there seems to be plenty of evidence of social activities, including a photograph of him taken by Sir Benjamin Stone outside the House of Commons on 2 July 1907 in the company of Mark Twain and other gentlemen. His membership of numerous activities actually suggests a gregarious nature, and he was also an active member of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society of Literature; following his death tribute was paid to him by Sir Edward William Brabrook (1839–1930) that offers further proof of his diverse interests:
‘I must first mention my dear old friend Dr. John Samuel Phene, who had reached his eighty-ninth year. He had been a member of the British Association since the year 1863 was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1872, and Joined our Society in 1875. In the year 1892, when Lord Halsbury became President, Dr. Phene and I were added to the list of Vice-Presidents, of which list, as it then stood, I am now the last survivor. His deep interest in the Society was manifested by his contributing not fewer than eight papers to our Transactions, in which he brought great erudition and shrewd observation to bear upon a variety of subjects, viz.: ‘Linguistic Synonyms in the Pre-Roman Languages of Britain and of Italy’ (vol. xv), ‘King Arthur and St. George’ (vol. xvii), ‘Ethical and Symbolical Literature in Art’ (vol. xviii), ‘ δενδροϕορία or Tree Transporting’ (vol. xix), ‘Place Names in and around Rome, Latium, Etruria, Britain, etc., with Earthworks and Other Works of Art illustrating: such Names’ (vol. xx), ‘The Rise, Progress, and Decay of the Art of Painting in Greece’ (vol. xxi), and ‘The Influence of Chaucer on the Language and Literature of England’ (vol. xxii). There was thus, in recent times, hardly a year in which he did not make some communication to our Society: he was regular in attendance at our Councils up to the last year of his life.’
– Report of the Royal Society of Literature, (1912) pp.12-13.
The stories about his reclusiveness may have some truth, for it seems that the doctor began building Cheyne House for his wife, and after her death he lost interest in the project and began to spend more time alone. He rarely left his Oakley Street residence after this, while the House of Mystery and Cheyne House in Upper Cheyne Row – now a storeroom for his collection of stones – were both boarded up and abandoned. The four acre garden behind the house was strewn with large statues and other curios.
For those interested in reading more about Dr Phene, there’s an article on him in the July 2013 edition of Fortean Times (which I must confess I have not yet read), and also a nicely-illustrated blog post here.
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.
In the summer of 1979 I went to see the latest James Bond movie, for the first time unaccompanied by my parents. They were not at all pleased when I returned home and repeated many of the film’s double entendres with innocent delight, but at the time I thought it was a great film with a catchy title.
Many years passed before I discovered – by chance – that the name Moonraker had not been dreamed up by the film-makers. The story of a hijacked ‘Moonraker’ space-shuttle capitalised on the renewed interest in science fiction that followed in the wake of Star Wars (1977) – but the original Moonraker story belongs to a period when even the steam engine was in its infancy. It was also a time when smuggling was rife in England, which provides the context of the story.
This week’s cdv is a rather charming portrait of a young lady reading a letter. Her natural pose and slight smile make a pleasant change to the forced artifices found in many portraits, where the sitters appear uncomfortable, are grimacing rigidly, or else are engaged in some pretence such as rowing a boat inside the studio. All portraiture, of course, involves an element of performance, and this was even more the case during the early years of photography. However, a cdv portrait like this could almost be imagined as a candid shot in the corner of someone’s living room. Was this letter a studio prop, or did the girl bring it along with her? Does it have personal significance – a letter from a distant relative, friend or lover? Perhaps the carte-de-visite was made for the person who wrote the letter, and would be posted back to them as an affectionate sign that his/her correspondence was both received and valued.
The reverse of the card identifies the photographer as Robert L. Graham, operating from his studio at the Top end of the Parade (No.6), Leamington, Warwickshire. It probably dates to the 1890s: Graham opened his studio at 7a Upper Parade in 1873, later moving to York Terrace and then to No. 6 Parade, expanding into the next door premises (No.8) as his business flourished.