Saturday July 23, 2022
Movie Review: The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932)
What’s startling isn’t the racism (c’mon) but the fact that the movie sometimes moves beyond the racism. I mean, it’s a 1932 love story between a white woman and a Chinese man. And sure, the Chinese man is played by a Scandinavian actor, Nils Asther (born Denmark, raised Sweden), but still: It’s a 1932 love story between a white woman and a Chinese man.
Is there another similar movie from this period? The reverse certainly: Asian woman, white dude. White dudes were making these movies, after all. That's their fantasy. The other is their nightmare.
Although isn’t Valentino’s “The Sheik” similar? A warlord is amused by, then smitten with, a feisty white woman, abducts her, holds her prisoner without forcing himself upon her, and gradually they fall in love. Both movies were based upon novels by women, too: Edith Maude Hull there, Grace Zaring Stone here. One difference: At the end of “The Sheik,” he reveals he’s not really an Arab but British/Spanish; that means the couple can stay together. Here, he is in fact Chinese. That means he has to die.
Even removing race from the equation, I found “Bitter Tea” kind of fascinating. At bottom, it’s about a brutal leader who falls in love, follows the woman’s lead toward mercy, and then loses everything as a result. It feels like a lesson: about what women want the world to be; about what the world really is.
Fu Manchu vs. the Masked Marvel
It begins with the chaos of war, with these titles projected on the screen at various intervals:
- BURNING OF CHAPEI
If you don’t know Chapei (I didn’t), it’s a suburb of Shanghai, now spelled Zhabei, and was much in the news in early 1932. (Filming for this began in July of that year.)
Amid the chaos, we get shots of guests arriving in the rain for the wedding of Megan and Bob (Barbara Stanwyck and Gavin Gordon) at the home of Mrs. Jackson (Clara Blandick*). “Everybody in China is here,” the hostess says. “Literally everybody.” Nice to know that people back then didn’t know how to use “literally,” either.
(*If Blandick looks familiar, there’s a good reason: She played Auntie Em in “The Wizard of Oz.” Overall, she has 124 credits—from a 1911 short to a 1951 TV series—and during her career she played an aunt 19 times, including Aunt Polly from “Tom Sawyer” three times in the ’30s alone. She died in 1962, age 85, so maybe had a glimmer that one of the seven movies she made in 1939 was becoming legendary.)
Mrs. Jackson also embodies the casual racism of the time: “They’re all tricky, treacherous and immoral,” she says of the Chinese. “I can’t tell one from another. They’re all Chinamen to me.”
We get something more nuanced, but equally troubling, from Bishop Harkness (Emmett Corrigan):
I’ve spent 50 years in China. And there are times when I think we’re just a lot of persistent ants trying to move a great mountain. Only last month, I learned a terrible lesson. I was telling the story of the crucifixion to some Mongolian tribesmen. Finally, I … I thought I’d touched their hearts. They crept closer to my little platform, their eyes burning with the wonder of their attention. Mongolian bandits, mind you—listening spellbound. But alas, I had misinterpreted their interest in the story. The next caravan of merchants that crossed the Gobi Desert was captured by them and … crucified. [Gasps from his listeners.] That, my friends, is China.
At this point the camera whirls away, almost 180 degrees, and lands on an ancient Chinese face. I suppose you could read this as either “Here’s one of the inscrutable devils!” or “Look at this poor bastard having to listen to this bullshit.” I lean toward the latter. Maybe because the director is Frank Capra, or because the screenplay was written by Edward E. Paramore Jr., who, I believe, leaned left. But mostly because of the way the rest of the movie plays out.
The bride shows up after a rickshaw accident with the titular general, tall and French-speaking, while the groom, a kind of hapless Samaritan, shows up only to say he’s going to leave. He needs to help orphans get out of the line of fire. (A civil war is implied rather than the Japanese one.) To do this he goes to, yes, the titular Gen. Yen, where we get the following exchange:
Bob: I’m sorry to intrude like this, General, but it’s a matter of the utmost importance.
Gen. Yen: Naturally. Everything you do is important.
Such a great, cutting line. And such a nice line-reading from Asther.
Yen, cold-blooded, then dismisses orphans as people without ancestors, and tries to entice the foreigner with “singsong girls”—a new phrase for me, but one which goes back to the 19th century. Basically, they’re Chinese geisha girls. When Yen learns that Bob actually bolted from his wedding for this good deed, the note he writes—which will supposedly help Bob get across nationalist lines—calls him a fool, and the first gang of soldiers he meets mock him accordingly. They laugh at him, steal his car, ogle Megan (she’s with him because: feisty). To get the orphans to safety, they now have to make their way on foot to the train station, where Bob and then Megan are knocked out. When she awakens, she’s in the train car of Gen. Yen, who’s with his concubine Mah-Li (Toshia Mori).
We don’t know it yet, but that’s it for Bob. He lives, but we never see him again. He’s out of the picture.
The rest of the movie is Megan, trying to escape Gen. Yen’s headquarters/estate while slowly succumbing to his charms. At one point, drugged, she has a dream of a rapacious Fu Manchu figure straight out of the pulps, with long claws for fingernails; and then—early superhero alert!—a masked figure appears in the window and beats back the Chinese devil. We assume Yen is Fu Manchu and the hero is Bob, but when the hero takes off his mask it’s Gen. Yen. When Megan wakes up, she’s so, so confused. And intrigued.
Mah-Li, it turns out, has her own lover, and when Megan doesn’t give her away the two become close. Or close-ish. At one point, Mah-Li convinces her to go to a formal dinner, and Megan gets all dolled up for it; then she thinks of kissing Gen. Yen, is shocked by the desire, and takes off the makeup.
At the dinner, we meet Jones (Walter Connolly), Yen’s corrupt but forthright western money man. I love this exchange we get later in the film when Jones realizes Yen is actually interested in Megan.
Jones: Listen, I’ve never interfered in your private affairs before. But don’t forget, this is a white woman.
Gen. Yen: That’s alright. I have no prejudice against the color.
Again: ahead of its time.
The merciful thing Megan convinces Yen to do is to spare Mah-Li even though she betrays him. And so Mah-Li betrays him further, sending out a secret message via temple gong to enemy forces, which leads to a daring railroad raid. And there goes all of Yen’s money and influence and power.
At this point he knows he’s dead, and the rest of the movie is his slow death—suicide by poison or opiate, or a combination therein. This is the bitter tea of the title. It goes on too long, to be honest.
I like that the movie, via Jones, rightly blames Megan for Yen’s death:
Well, Miss Davis, you certainly gummed up the prettiest set-up I ever saw. I had visions of making General Yen the biggest thing in China, but you sure queered that beautifully. I hate your insides, Miss Davis, but you’re an American and we’ve got to stick together now…
What great language from Paramore: gummed up, queered, hate your insides.
Stanwyck barely says anything in response, or really for the last 10 minutes of the film. Maybe because there’s nothing to say? She and Jones are on a slow boat away from China, and Jones keeps jawing away: about Yen, about trees, about reincarnation.
The reception the movie received is interesting. Most of the 1932-33 reviews I’m seeing via newspapers.com are positive (though the phrase “perfumed silence” is so overused I get the feeling the critics were cutting and pasting press-agent copy); and when Radio City Music Hall decided to include feature films with its live stage shows in January 1933, “Bitter Tea” was the first one tapped. But it didn’t last. Disinterest or racist backlash? Stanwyck claimed the latter. Who knows? We do know that when Columbia tried to re-release the film in 1950, the Production Code Administration wanted so many cuts Columbia gave up. A reminder that, politically and culturally, we can take giant steps backwards, too.
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