Written by: Edward E. Paramore, Jr.
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther
Black & White, 88 minutes
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
Stanwyck plays Megan Davis, a New England gal, newly arrived in
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.