For Reel

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)
July 6, 2012, 6:34 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Frank Capra

The Bitter Tea of General Yen was, at the time of its release, Columbia Pictures’ most expensive production to date. Its assumed success would never come – though it had the honor of being the first picture to be screened at the famed Radio City Music Hall, the theater chose to remove it earlier than the expected two-week minimum run due to poor attendance. Star Barbara Stanwyck was baffled at the result, blaming (and perhaps rightly so) the racism of the movie-goers, who weren’t quite ready to see eroticism suggested between an Asian man and a white woman. Frank Capra’s career would lead him in a wildly new direction the following year with It Happened One Night, but one can’t help but wonder what could have come of him had he continued to make pictures like this – it is his most thoughtful effort, touching on issues of religion, class, and race with great daring and uncharacteristic ambiguity. Stanwyck plays a Christian missionary who is held captive by a Chinese warlord, played with relative sensitivity by Danish-born Nils Asther. Late in the film, Stanwyck begs mercy on behalf of Asther’s traitorous concubine, which he grants and inevitably is forced to regret. The final sequence, without dialogue, is Capra’s most evocative sequence – the warlord now abandoned by his men, he poisons himself with tea as Stanwyck, ashamed to have cost him everything, obediently mourns him by his side. While miscegenation is often addressed as the film’s prime controversy, equally challenging is this conclusion, which makes the audience empathize wholly with the warlord as Stanwyck becomes forcefully aware of the harm caused by what could be described as her Christian naivete.

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