Monday, July 16, 2007

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

Directed by: Frank Capra
Written by: Edward E. Paramore, Jr.
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther

Black & White, 88 minutes

Grade: B+

One hundred years ago today, Barbara Stanwyck was born. She was an odd beauty, with a slightly owl like face and disproportionate nose, but one look at her and you were entranced. Her performances were graceful, commanding, sexual, and natural. Stanwyck didn't announce her presence the way Joan Crawford or Bette Davis would, she never shouted for attention, she would simply invite the viewer in with her good looks, and keep them there with her talent. Some of her films (Stella Dallas, The Lady Eve, Double Indemnity) are well remembered today, but most of them have gotten lost in the shuffle. One such film is Frank Capra's The Bitter Tea of General Yen. For Capra, the film was nothing more than an attempt to earn an Oscar, for Stanwyck, it would be the major turning point in her career, pushing her towards better roles in bigger films.

When we think of Capra today, we're immediately reminded of the populist Americana that infused such classics as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It's a Wonderful Life, but in the early '30's, Capra was desperately trying to prove himself as a major player. His films were fairly successful, and he was the one reliably consistent filmmaker that Columbia Pictures could lay claim to. His frustration at not receiving any nominations for American Madness spurred Capra to make, in Columbia head Harry Cohn's words, "arty junk," the kind of films that usually win awards. To achieve his goal, Capra chose a tragic romance set in an exotic location, and as his actress and proxy for the audience, he chose Stanwyck. It was their third film together, and probably their best, but it was atypical for both of them. There is a good deal of sensitivity present here, a dreamy, melodramatic overcast that lends the film a haunting quality that sticks in your mind.

Stanwyck plays Megan Davis, a New England gal, newly arrived in Shanghai to marry an American born doctor/missionary, who has devoted his work to saving orphans that are left behind in the midst of civil war. Megan and her husband-to-be go on a last minute rescue mission to get six abandoned children to safety, putting their wedding on hold. The streets of Shanghai are full of violence as riots tear the city apart. The crowd separates Megan and her lover, and eventually she gets knocked cold by a blow to the head in an attempt to find safe ground. When she awakes, she is in a train car, a Chinese woman looks over her, and a mysterious man stands in the shadows. He is General Yen (Nils Asther), an infamous Chinese warlord, known for his savagery and unwillingness to compromise. Taken to Yen's palace hideaway, and held against her will, Megan adamantly refuses Yen's romantic advances. But at night she dreams of Yen coming to her rescue and taking her into his arms. She sees his brutality, evident in the firing squad that executes prisoners in the courtyard outside her bedroom window, yet she also sees an intelligent individual that believes in the traditions and history of his homeland. As far as politics and religion are concerned, they have no common meeting ground, but they are both opinionated, passionate people, unafraid to express how they feel about given situations. When one of his servants betrays Yen, Megan begs him to reconsider the execution, to be merciful one time in his life. Yen gives in to Megan's wishes, and places the servant's life in Megan's hands, making the servant her responsibility. Asked why he does so, Yen replies, "I'm going to convert a missionary," and in a way, he does. The servant continues to leak information on Yen, information that brings about his downfall. His soldiers leave him, his followers flee, he is alone, broken, a vague shadow of his former self. Megan, realizing her mistake, tries to console Yen, apologizing for the damage that she has caused. For Yen, however, it is too late, his love and admiration for the American woman has made him blind to the customs that he has followed for so long. He has no honor left, and in his mind, there is only one way to resolve the situation.

The portrayal of a love between an Asian man and an American woman was considered pretty risqué back in 1933, and the commercial failure of the film is proof of the matter, but while the film may seem tame today, it should be commended for it's attempt to shatter such a taboo topic. Capra is respectful of the material and it's setting, as he would be four years later with Lost Horizon, and he is sure to point out how ridiculous and unfair it can be for the people of one nation to try and force it's beliefs and customs on the people of another. It's easy to think of Yen as the bad guy, because in essence he does kidnap Megan, but it is she that is the real villain of the story. Her ignorance and naiveté ruin Yen. She doesn't mean to do so, but that doesn't change the fact that their lives alter for the worse because of it. Capra was a faithful subscriber to the belief of "The American Dream," but what made him unique, what made him special, was the fact that he was smart enough to realize that dream, at times, could impose on the dreams of others, belittling their aspirations in the process.

While Capra does a good job in what is rather unexplored territory for him (images of terror of bloodshed were not usually his forte), it is Stanwyck that keeps the viewer in tune with the film. She is at her most seductive here, and her performance goes through almost every emotional response imaginable. She is strong yet vulnerable, caring yet firm, faithful to her lover yet undeniably intrigued by Yen. Her character makes bad decisions that lead to fatal results, but we forgive her, as does Yen. Her beauty is staggering, almost suffocating, and Joseph Walker's cinematography makes the most of it. Shooting through hazy filters, Walker creates a very serene, almost surreal atmosphere that is both intoxicating and inviting. His camera loves Stanwyck, and she owns every frame that she's in. Nils Asther, born in Denmark and raised in Sweden, is surprisingly convincing as Yen. It's a difficult character, just as difficult as Stanwyck's, and he is able to convey all the complexities and unconventional characteristics in such an odd romantic leading role. Stanwyck often has the ability to overshadow even the greatest of actors ( look at Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve), but Asther is up to task. He is another good actor that is all but forgotten today.

Even though it wouldn't garner Capra the Oscar he was looking for (a year later he would make Oscar history with the better, but completely different It Happened One Night), The Bitter Tea of General Yen is a good film. It's not particularly great, but it is mature and memorable, and it's worth watching for Stanwyck. The film has it's followers (German wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder paid homage with one of his greatest achievements, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) , some of which have called it Capra's greatest work. Obviously, I disagree. There are few films greater than It's a Wonderful Life, and this is not one of them. But if you can find it (it's not on DVD), watch it. There aren't many treasures in cinema that can rival the presence of Barbara Stanwyck. Happy Birthday, Barbara, you were one of a kind. On July 16, 1907, God must have been smiling when you came into the world. One hundred years later, film lovers everywhere still smile at the joy you bring them. Thank you.

1 comment:

H. Stewart said...

Nowadays they call them "prestige pictures" but they're still nothing more than arty junk! I've never even heard of this one, but it has a pretty ridiculous title and poster. I guess I'm sort of adverse to that sort of early Hollywood Orientalism, especially after sitting through the dreadful King & I.

Anthony Lane described Stanwyck wonderfully in his recent profile in the New Yorker:
"Film theory has dwelled, with justice, on what is called the objectifying male gaze—that is, the power of the camera to ogle and depersonalize, and to encourage the viewer to follow suit—without always remembering that, at Hollywood’s height, there were plenty of people who could take that gaze like a punch and throw it right back." Haha!!