Frank Capra made a sort of "little" film in 1933, little in that it starred then up-and-coming Barbara Stanwyck (the future iconic star of Double Indemnity and The Furies had only been in a few films before) and that it dealt with a topic that was very touchy to attempt for in 1933; only Griffith before had tried to deal with some kind of interracial bonding and/or sexual tension between white and Chinese people on screen, at least to my knowledge. What ended up working in favor for Capra with his story, and what makes it still work today still despite the creaky bits of racist dialog (i.e. "China-man" is repeated throughout by the supposedly tolerant missionary Megan Davis), is the script. This has excellent dialog and a potent message about trying to make a difference, to make some sort of change where things are, perhaps in simplification (hey, it's Capra), about the same as they've been for 2,000 years.
It's a message that infers some tendencies to prejudices on both sides, of the white well-educated woman who sees to do good wherever she can and the stalwart General who will try to impress and act cordial around the lady but mostly because he wants to have his way- which may be with her. The story itself sounds kind of typical, probably because by today's standards it is: Megan Davis has just come to China to do missionary work but is caught in the midst of a bad civil war going on, and after a tumultuous battle she gets caught up in in the streets and is knocked out is taken into the 'care' of General Yen (Nils Asther, no, not Chinese apparently but does so good a job as to not notice *too* much). She cannot leave his custody at his palace because of the battling blocking up the train tracks, and has to stick tight... in the span of a week she tries to spare a life of a spy and almost falls for Yen, or maybe more than almost.
It's actually the one complicated and really exacting thing in this production is seeing Asther and Stanwyck on screen. I'm not sure if the latter gave quite a great performance, but for what she's given she elevates it into a stern-faced but kind-hearted portrayal of a woman caught in an untenable situation, and Asther gives as good as he can by bypassing the obvious pit-fall of stereotyping by making Yen a very human figure. He's a man of class and taste but also tradition and with that typical double-edged sword of being ruthless with slaughter and elegant in decorum and in attitude. Somehow Capra is able to garner very good work from them with a story that, in the wrong hands, could become the most ham-fisted thing on the planet.
Luckily not only is Capra uncompromising in dealing with the issues at hand both upfront and underlying in terms of race and ethnicity and just the clashing of cultures, but in technical terms with the bits of battle scenes (the shoot-out late in the film at the train station is breathtaking for 1933 and pretty good for today), and it shows a director so confident in his craft that he could be ready for better things. It might be dated... actually, it is dated. But for any and all faults, it's a picture made with surprising sensitivity and compassion for all its characters, and it doesn't stick to clichés just for the sake of it - it's a solid drama without much pretension, save for a dream sequence that's actually hallucinatory in the best way.
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