Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

 A very pre-code poster for the film, promising a bit more than you actually get.
 
The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) is my favorite film directed by Frank Capra, followed closely by Lost Horizon (1937).  It stars former silent heartthrob Nils Asther and Barbara Stanwyck as the main protagonists.  They’re supported by the always wonderful character actor Walter Connolly and the remarkable Toshia Mori.  It’s a splendid pre-code film.  If you’ve not seen it, seek it out.
 
 
In the silent era audiences were treated to actors such as Richard Barthelmess (Broken Blossoms) and Lon Chaney (Mr. Wu and Shadows) playing in “yellow face.”  This unfortunate trend continued well into the 1950’s with Marlon Brando (Teahouse of the August Moon), Curt Jurgens (Inn of the Sixth Happiness) and 1960’s with Mickey Rooney (Breakfast at Tiffany’s).  Of course this type of casting was not limited to “Asian types.” See The Rains Came 1939 for Tyrone Power as an Indian as well as H.B. Warner and Maria Ouspenskaya portraying the Maharaj and Maharai.  I won’t even go near the history of “blackface.”  I’ll point you instead to the excellent work of Donald Bogle.
 
 
 
 
Warner Oland in costume as a Fu-Manchu circa 1927

Perhaps one of the most famously typecast actors in the silent era, besides Lon Chaney (Shadows, Mr. Wu for example) was Warner Oland.  Oland was by birth a Swede and made quite a career in the silent era portraying a variety of Orientals and usually villains.  He began starring in Pearl White serials as her nemesis, a Fu Manchu-type and in the late silent era was a delightful baddie in Old San Francisco.  The twist in Old San Francisco was his character was a Eurasian posing as a pure Chinese.  Oh, the horror of being found out to have heathen white man’s blood coursing through his veins!  (It’s a fun film.)  Oland’s typecasting continued in the talkie era and his fame grew with his portrayal of the beloved/reviled Charlie Chan in a series of films for 20th Century Fox.  Personally, I like the Chan films.  There is plenty of humor and fun mysteries.  The pidgin English Chan spouts is merely a front, he is a very smart cookie.  He's smarter than most of the regular goons in the pictures.  Usually well cast with 20th Century Fox stable of actors, they’re always fun. 
 
Lon Chaney as Mr. Wu
 

Myrna Loy is equally famous for her early career as an exotic/Asian (see the header image on this page).  She portrayed an Asian or Native-type in most of her silent films before graduating to Nora Charles in the talkie era.  Loy made much with two of her last exotic roles in the pair of 1932 releases Thirteen Women and Mask of Fu Manchu.  The MGM Fu Manchu she was paired with the Boris Karloff and in which she delightfully chewed the scenery and orgasmic ally enjoyed the hero being flogged.  It was not “politically correct” then, nor is it now, but damn it is a fun movie.  Karloff, of course, later played Mr. Wong Detective in a series of low budget films and Peter Lorre did a turn as Mr. Moto in the late 1930’s.
 
Edward G. Robinson in The Hatchet Man

 
One of the more unusual bits of casting would be Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young in The Hatchet Man, almost the entire cast is white actors in yellow face.  None of it is taken for camp, though it may well be viewed that way today.  Toshia Mori also has a small bit in this film.  Another actor who portrayed exotics in the silent and sound era was the always sensitive Latin heartthrob, Ramon Novarro.  He’s quite good in 1932’s The Son-Daughter sharing star billing with Helen Hayes during her brief tenure at MGM.  Being cast in this film is probably what sent her flying back to Broadway and on to even greater triumphs.
 
Most of the yellow face portrayals were stereotypes, extremely racist and with the advent of World War II even more distasteful.  The aforementioned Richard Barthelmess as Chen-Huang in Broken Blossoms was a notable exception in the silent era.  His dignified and restrained performance was and still is outstanding.  This could also be said for Paul Muni and Luise Rainer in 1937’s The Good Earth.  Though I personally feel they are miscast, there were many contemporary Asian actors who could have been great in this film.  Hello, Anna May Wong, anybody?
 
a promotional herald for the film
 
This long preamble brings me to Nils Asther as General Yen in The Bitter Tea of General Yen.  Asther brought both gravitas and humor to his portrayal of General Yen.  Of course, Asther was no stranger to being cast as an exotic.  One only has to see 1929’s Wild Orchids for a fine example with Asther as an Indonesian Prince.  He is simply fabulous, worth the price of admission for him alone, Garbo is frosting on the cake.  In Bitter Tea he is made up as yellow face but his portrayal was anything but stereotypical of the day.  His Yen was tender, cruel, mercurial and magnetically sexy.  Human is how I’d characterize him.  He recognizes the hypocrisy of the Christian missionaries and, in particular, the hypocrisy of Megan Davis.  He is a man of power, he is cruel when the case warrants and he enjoys the perks of his position with what one assumes more than one concubine.  He is a man who is also not afraid to go after what he wants, and in this case, what he wants is Megan Davis.   
 
Yen first meets Megan Davis during a refugee exodus in his province.  His sedan hits, and presumably kills a rickshawman.  You can see the momentary flicker of desire cross his face when he meets the indignant Davis.  (That’s the veteran silent actor speaking volumes.)  Davis and her fiancĂ© Robert (Gavin Gordon) become separated at a railway station and she rendered unconscious.  Davis is rescued and/or kidnapped by General Yen.  Davis awakens in Yen's summer palace. Lavish quarters!  The dreaminess of the surroundings are quickly brought back to harsh reality when from her window, she witnesses a mass execution. She is greatly upset by the violence and Yen merely orders the executions moved further away and out of earshot. 

 
 
Yen is clearly infatuated with Davis.  He knows that she is believed to be dead and all he must do is bide his time for her to relent and succumb to his power and charm.  Davis finds herself subconsciously attracted to her captor.  This is shown in a dream sequence in which Asther made up as a stylized and horrific ideal of Fu-Manchu.  He threatens her and she is rescued by the charming, dapper masked man, who upon removal of the mask reveals himself to be the urbane General Yen.
 
 
Yen invites her to dine with him.  Mah-Li brings in a retinue of servants and elaborate jeweled garments for her to wear.  Davis revels in the luxury and ritual of being made up and then dresses as an Asian Princess.  Looking in the mirror at her changed countenance, she rejects it and changes back into her drab, plain, western clothing.  This rebel won't be tempted by the ultimate in temptation. 

At dinner, she meets Yen's adviser, American mercenary and renegade Mr. Jones (Walter Connolly), and Yen's aide, Captain Li (Richard Loo).   She is shocked to see Mah-Li treated so badly, like an object, a lesser being.  She warms to Mah-Li and vows to help her in what she sees as her innocent affair with Captain Li.  She's buffaloed by Mah-Li's premise of atoning for her misdeeds by going to temple.  In reality, she is passing secrets to the enemies of General Yen.  Yen sentences her to death and Davis pleads with him to spare her. Yen realizes that Mah-Li will not change her ways, but sees this as an opportunity to "convert a missionary."  He dismisses Davis' appeal to the Christian ideal of forgiveness as empty words, but accepts her offer to serve as a hostage against the future conduct of Mah-Li.
 

 
When Mah-Li and Captain Li betray the location of the General's money to the enemy, his army deserts him. Yen discovers his palace empty and realizes he is lost and he begins to prepare to commit suicide.  Meanwhile, realizing that she has destroyed Yen, Davis goes to him willingly but then finds she cannot go through with her side of the bargain as forfeit for Mah-Li.  She runs away to her rooms weeping, torn by her own desire for Yen and her own prejudice.  Yen begins his ritual and preparing the “bitter tea” that will take him to another world.  Davis realizes she must go through with her part, and makes herself up and dresses in the Chinese gown Yen had given to her.  She comes to him to play her part, but he knows his life is over and drinks the tea telling her he hopes they will meet again where there is no General Yen and no Megan Davis, only the pair of lovers.  Davis and Jones make their escape from the province.  He closes the film musing, drunkenly, about Yen and the meaning of his life and ultimate failure.

 
The Bitter Tea of General Yen was a box office failure upon its release and was for many years overshadowed by Capra's later films.  Happily, with the passage of time, the film has grown in critical acclaim as the great film that it is.

The sets are beautiful and dreamlike, the cinematography by Frank Walker is much the same.  The film, though limited in the number of sets, still looks as lavish as an MGM film.  Much like the later Lost Horizon, Caolumbia spent a fair amount of money on this production and it shows.  The performances of all are uniformly wonderful, though I do find Stanwyck shrill at times.  I can't help it, the instant Asther is on screen, my eyes gravitate to him.  It's a wonderful performance and should have moved his career further, and tragically did not. 

 
The Bitter Tea of General Yen is curretly available on DVD as part of a set from the TCM Vault Collection entitled Frank Capra: The Early Collection. You can purchase the set here.  In addition to Bitter Tea, the set includes Ladies of Leisure (1930), Rain or Shine (1930), The Miracle Woman (1931), and Forbidden (1932).  I've see each, except Rain or Shine, and they're all excellent.
 
 
 

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