Wednesday 24 August 2011

1,001 Films: "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" (1933)

Frank Capra had made his mark on the early sound cinema a couple of years before with American Madness, but his follow-up, The Bitter Tea of General Yen, proves to be heavy on exotic chinoiserie that feels like a hangover from the silent period - Griffith's Broken Blossoms, especially - and was to find more extravagant expression yet in the same year's Shanghai Express. A brunette Barbara Stanwyck turns up amidst the chaos of a Shanghai being ransacked by the Nationalists, where she's expected to wed an American doctor and submit willingly to high society. Instead, she gets klonked on the head at the train station and taken prisoner by the titular General (Nils Asther), a bandit capable of both extreme generosity and extreme boorishness.

Presumably Capra had to tread lightly around any suggestion of miscegenation - a still-striking dream sequence, with Yen as a Nosferatu figure sinking his claws into the heroine, remains close to the knuckle - so the story's been dressed up, quite lavishly, as a palatable fable of liberation, with Stanwyck's missionary spirit and talk of selfless love coming to touch all those around her. Prone to preachiness and creakiness, with a strange, downbeat ending, it's more of a curio than a key film in the Capra filmography. Still, individual scenes offer an early demonstration of the leading lady's tenacity, and you can always admire Asther's skilful, subtle tightrope-walking in a role that could so easily have slipped into stereotype.

The Bitter Tea of General Yen is available on DVD as part of UCA's Icons: Barbara Stanwyck boxset.

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