4 July 2010 | st-shot
Bitter Tea sweet film making by Capra
A year before his major breakthrough film It Happened One Night director Frank Capra made this romantic tragedy that is filled with provocative topic and outstanding set design sensually photographed by master cinematographer Joseph Walker.
Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) arrives in China in the middle of a civil war to marry her missionary husband Dr. Robert Strike and then work alongside him. Before they even marry they are separated during an evacuation and Davis finds herself in the hands of warlord General Yen (Nils Asther) . Yen at first mocks Davis but soon finds himself falling heavily for her.
The Bitter Tea of General Yen is filled with characters making bad decisions. Davis and Strike are nearly killed due to their naive condescension and trusting Megan is betrayed twice by her maid with huge consequence. General Yen cold and cruel as he may be also succumbs in his case to incurable romanticism. Only Jones (Walter Connolly) the arms dealer is grounded in reality to the dire situation that faces them.
Director Capra ably provides scenes of both chaos ( refugee evacuations, night battles ) and tranquility in the idyllic setting of Yen's compound palace where the General sets about seducing Megan with delicate charm while firing squads outside in the courtyard dispatch his enemy. Capra also finds time to get some satiric shots in at Western superiority and hypocrisy but it is the sexual tension between the leads that is at the center of Yen.
Megan's ambiguity is excellently conveyed by Stanwyck's actions and immature responses to the different world she finds herself. She's totally out of her element and her western ways are constantly checkmated by Yen. As Yen, Nils Asther cuts a dashing figure as the highly cultured warlord. He's cruel by occupation but sensitive in nature, especially around women as Jones informs us and it ultimately brings about his ruin. His scenes with Stanwyck resonate with cultural clash and erotic implication and Capra ups the ante even further with a Freudian dream that Megan has.
Capra went on to make more famous and bigger films but he would never approach the eroticism or cynicism that this provocative thirties work offered causing me to wonder if success took some of the edge out of him..