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  • 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.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    After the collapse of the Monarchy of China – the Manchu Dynasty in 1912 – various warlords with their private armies and areas of control were temporarily dominant. So in the film's beginning we are introduced to the chaos in Chinese cities that resulted from intense fighting between factions.

    During a powerful rainstorm, Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) meets General Yen (Nils Asther) briefly after her rickshaw driver is run down by his automobile. Miss Davis is on her way to a marriage with a Protestant churchman, Dr. Robert Strike (Gavin Gordon), in Shanghai. But Bob finds out that there are children to be rescued at St. Andrew's Orphanage in Chapei. At the reception the minister demonstrates his priorities; he tells Megan that he wants to briefly delay the marriage and work quickly to save the children. They travel to General Yen's HQ to get the necessary travel pass to Chapei. Yen thinks that Bob is stupid to defer his marriage to an attractive woman, and thus gives him a worthless document that mocks Bob. Thus Bob and Megan have difficulty in removing the orphaned Asian and Caucasian children. In the chaos and fighting they become separated, but Megan gets rescued by Yen, who places her in a bedroom on his troop train. Later, while asleep in his palace, she is awakened by a firing squad; the general is eliminating his enemies. As Megan is horrified, Yen philosophizes that it is better to die quickly then slowly starve to death, as he has no rice to feed his prisoners. Out of deference to Megan he has the surviving prisoners moved, but only to be executed out of earshot. Megan calls him a "yellow swine." Yen's reaction is passive. In conversation with his financial adviser Jones (Walter Connolly), Yen says he plans on keeping Megan in custody. When Jones responds that she is white, Yen replies, "That's all right. I have no prejudice against her color." Jones retorts, "Well, it's no skin off my nose."

    While in custody Megan tries to bribe Yen's concubine Mah-Li (Toshia Mori) to get a message to Bob. But Mah-Li is treacherous: She takes Megan's payment (a ring) but hides the message. Before the half-way mark of the movie there is a fascinating dream sequence. In it Yen is a Chinese caricature-monster who breaks down Megan's bedroom door to get at her. But she is rescued by a masked man who knocks the monster out flat. When she unmasks her hero, she discovers that it is … Yen the rescuer! They kiss and caress as Megan is awakened by Yen dressed in traditional Chinese clothing. Skeptical of missionaries, Yen asks her if she knows anything of Chinese artistic culture: poetry, music, painting. Of course she knows nothing as she has only been in China for a few days. The general reminds her to accept his dinner invitation (Megan rejected previous ones). Meanwhile Megan has noticed that Mah-Li is courted by Chinese Captain Li (Richard Loo), Yen's aide. At dinner, Jones talks too much. A war profiteer, he has been a master at gaining money from the provincials for the general at no small profit for himself. That does not matter to Yen, as long as the goals of the two men are congruent. Meanwhile Yen removes Mah-Li's jade bracelets and rings and presents them to Megan, who refuses them. Although they are forced upon her, Megan returns them to Mah-Li, who Yen has discovered has been betraying military secrets to his enemies. Megan successfully pleads for Mah-Li's life but by doing so becomes Yen's willful hostage.

    But Mah-Li is habitually disloyal. There is a short but thrilling action scene when two trains are parked parallel. A signal is made, and a company of soldiers hiding in the gondola car of one open fire at the other (Yen's money train). The shots are returned, but Yen's forces are overcome as his enemies drive the train away. Mah-Li has again betrayed Yen to his enemy (General Feng) and has duped Megan. Without money, Yen's soldiers begin deserting him; his spacious palace becomes empty. More than fifteen minutes of movie time is focused on the pragmatic general's last day. With hope lost, Yen has to drink the bitter tea, but he dies in the arms of Megan. Megan and Jones sail back to Shanghai.

    Nils Asther, the only non-Asian to play an oriental in this film, has a tremendously strong screen presence. As General Yen, he plays his role with dignity and intelligence, and is mannerly. Barbara Stanwyck was usually good ("Stella Dallas," "Double Indemnity," "Walk on the Wild Side," "The Big Valley"). Toshia Mori, a Japanese-American, played her Chinese character well. She had some movie roles in the 1920s and 1930s. Walter Connolly as Jones is a sufficient oily profiteer who cares only for his master: money!

    Frank Capra, one of America's greatest directors, is noted for well- crafted movies and impeccable set designs (note Yen's palace), even with lower budgets. He was masterful in visual geometry and at using light and shadow for setting mood. Capra's gifts extended to action sets and character development. Although a Sicilian immigrant, he lived the American dream, and thus his successful movies often focused on idealistic Americana. Three times Columbia's great director won an Academy Award for Best Movie in the 1930s; in 1939 he was chosen the top Hollywood director by Time Magazine. It was only after World War II when a deflated public became skeptical, and so his "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946) was not initially appreciated. In time Capra's genius was again recognized, and that movie is now a perennial Christmas classic for new generations. Capra directed the best actors and actresses of his time, including Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, Spencer Tracy, Claude Rains, Walter Brennan, Walter Huston, Claudette Colbert, Loretta Young, Jean Arthur, Katherine Hepburn, Donna Reed, and Eleanor Parker.
  • Obviously a pre-code film since the subject of attraction between a white woman and an Asian man would be a taboo one for many years once the production code went into effect just after this film was released. Capra creates a mood piece with some compelling and strange imagery helped greatly by the excellent performances of the stars. The film is driven by Barbara Stanwyck, Capra's favorite leading lady and here it is easy to see why, she always delivered intense real work. Nils Asther is all but forgotten today but he really registers with a multifaceted performance. Considering the times in which it was made there may be portrayals which jar a modern viewer but if you are willing to take that into account this is quite an unusual picture.
  • A young missionary finds herself swept into a world of Oriental intrigue & power, after being ‘rescued' by a Chinese warlord.

    With THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN, Columbia Pictures & director Frank Capra created a small cinematic gem. Not only does the film boast of superb production values, a first-class script & excellent performances, but it enwraps its audience in a sensual romance which rewards intelligent viewing, while offering a liberal dash of pre-Code sensibilities. Miscegenation, so soon to become absolutely taboo in Hollywood, here is made palatable & attractive, indeed, reasonable, the natural outcome of passions molded by tumultuous times.

    Although billed second, Nils Asther takes acting honors in the title role. A matinee idol during silent days, Asther found it difficult to find good roles in talking pictures, hampered by his exotic looks which made him hard to cast to his advantage. But with BITTER TEA he found the role of a lifetime. Although tall & Swedish, he completely inhabits the skin of his Asian character, making the General at once believable & sympathetic. His every movement, shift of the eyes, even the way he chews his food are all part of his persona. Nearly forgotten now, Asther shows with this one performance what he was capable of achieving.

    As the missionary captive, Barbara Stanwyck gives the kind of competent, skillful & engaging interpretation which she would bring to all of her roles over the course of several decades. Capra's favorite actress, the dramatic flames she lights are an intriguing counterpoint to the repressed emotions of Asther's Yen.

    Loud, brash Walter Connolly, as the General's financial advisor, makes a good contrast to Asther; his plainspoken character often gives voice to what the others are thinking. Lovely Toshi Mori graces the role of the General's unfaithful concubine. A young Richard Loo is her secret lover.

    Movie mavens will recognize Clara Blandick in the role of the feisty missionary hostess at the beginning of the film & Willie Fung as the rebel train engineer, both uncredited.


    While meant to be funny and introduce the plot, the opening scenes are a bit unfair to Western missionaries in China, portraying them as rather fatuous, repressed & gossipy. By in large, missionaries lived lives full of self-sacrifice & devotion. In return, not a few were rewarded with penury and an early grave. That today the ‘Underground Church' in China numbers many millions of Christian believers stands as a witness to the faithfulness of these good people.

    The era of the Chinese warlord - such as General Yen in the film - was brief but colorful and extremely violent. The Qing dynasty, China's last, was overthrown in 1911 and the Republic of China was formed. Its despotic president, Yüan Shih-kai, relied more on military force than democratic principles to maintain his authority over China's vast stretches & huge population. Upon his death in 1916, the country was thrown into confusion & chaos, with numerous military officers & powerful bandit kings all using their armies to control districts and even whole provinces, constantly warring with each other amid a swirling sea of ever-changing alliances and bitter feuds. Foreign powers (Soviet Russia, Imperial Japan & Great Britain) only made matters worse by supporting various factions. It was the ordinary Chinese citizen who suffered most, with the depredations of war's brutality & the inevitable famines rained upon them. It was not until 1928, with the capture of Peking by Republican General Chiang Kai-shek, and the reunification of China, that the power of the warlords was finally broken.
  • I would describe this film as sumptuous, erotic, sophisticated and emotionally complex. It is a 1933 Frank Capra film, about a love affair between a Christian missionary's fiancée and an educated Chinese warlord, a film which broke the taboo against depicting inter-racial relationships just prior to the introduction of the reactionary Hayes code in Hollywood.

    As a work of film craftsmanship and artistry it is just breath-taking - starting with the initial scenes of chaos in the midst of a bombing raid where Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyk) makes her first impression on General Yen through a small act of kindness. The crowd scenes are masterfully directed and the photography positively glows. Later on, watch the superimposition of images as they gradually hover around Megan's face, suggesting a dream state. Then, in the train compartment, the three main characters are assembled - Megan, General Yen, and Yen's concubine, Mah-Li. Without a word being spoken the camera prowls among the three characters catching every little nuance of the eyes and body language as they react to one another. It is very intimate - almost uncomfortably so - and very dramatic. There is a dream sequence of Megan's later in the film, too. I will not spoil it for you, but it is provocative and jaw-dropping, and it must have caused gasps in the audience back in 1933.

    The film is somewhat a psychological dance among the main characters. None of them is quite who they seem to be or even who they think they are. As General Yen's fortunes decline Megan's dearly held Christian beliefs seem overwhelmed by a tragic set of events that she has no control over but which she is inexorably a part of. Even when she is compelled to bargain for the Christian ideal of mercy, Yen is stung, fearing he is being "taken" by a missionary type, while loving said missionary type so passionately. Nils Asther's performance as Yen is, at this point, heartbreaking.

    It has been commented that several Chinese in the Christian household at the beginning of the film appear in shadow and are depicted as sinister. That is not my take on it at all. If anything, this film is anti-racist .Those Chinese servants in shadows are depicted as being practically invisible to the whites at the party - people you snap your fingers at if you want an hors-d'oeuvre or the piano played. David Lean did something similar in "A Passage to India" decades later. Toshia Mori, as Mah-Li, plays a fully-developed character, and adds considerable weight to the authenticity of the movie. Oh, and Walter Connolly, as the resident white scumbag, fatuous as he may sound, delivers a lot of wisdom and expert postulating, particularly at the end. He's a one-man Greek chorus.
  • Following in the same path as Paramount classics, Shanghai Express and The General Died at Dawn, The Bitter Tea Of General Yen is a remarkable film about the chaos that was Kuomintang China. And it had a theme about interracial love that was years ahead of its time. Albeit though it was a love unresolved.

    Barbara Stanwyck plays a missionary newly arrived from the USA with the hope of marrying missionary doctor Gavin Gordon. While trying to get some missionary orphans out of the way of war, she falls into the hands of Nils Asther playing the title role.

    Unlike Warner Oland in Shanghai Express or Akim Tamiroff in The General Died At Dawn, Asther is an intelligent and articulate man who expresses the Chinese view of life better than was seen on film until Curt Jurgens in The Inn Of Sixth Happiness. He also dares to love the white missionary, but she's otherwise taken with Gavin Gordon. Nevertheless Barbara finds a lot that's intriguing about Asther.

    There is a less than flattering view of the white people here, but not the usual criminal lowlifes who profit from war in China. It's the missionaries here with a sense of superior culture that comes in for criticism. Highly unusual and way ahead of its time for a movie theme. In fact Walter Connolly who works for Asther in procuring arms for his troops is a far better observer of the Oriental mind than any of the missionary people.

    There is a subplot in The Bitter Tea Of General Yen very similar to The King And I. One of Asther's many concubines is Toshia Mori who really loves one of his officers, Richard Loo. Asther reacts the same way Yul Brynner did when Tuptim found him so non-appealing, a question of vanity and pride more than of the heart.

    The interracial theme and the ideas way ahead of their time did not augur well for The Bitter Tea Of General Yen. I think it can be better appreciated by today's audience than the audience of 1933.
  • fsilva22 February 2007
    Unusual, strange, interesting, intriguing, offbeat, surreal, unique film… so atypical of Capra's acknowledged style, that one truly regrets that he never made a film of this sort afterwards in his career.

    For sure, a product of the more permissive Pre-Code era (1930-1934), it couldn't have been filmed under the Production Code's strict rules; the only suggestion of miscegenation would have risen too many brows during its enforcement.

    I must say, though, that I have the impression that I saw an edited or censored version of the official release, since the DVD I watched is of British origin (it's not yet available on DVD in the USA) and apparently the out-of-print VHS American edition, is 5 or 6 minutes longer. Well, it shouldn't surprise me since this film was banned in England for many years (reportedly for its miscegenation subject, a delicate matter for the British Empire in those years).

    This fantastic tale of a Chinese Warlord's (Nils Asther) infatuation with an American Woman (Stanwyck), who's engaged to a missionary, is charged with sensuality, erotic imagery and sexual tension (by early 1930s standards) between the two leading players.

    Asther gives an intense, credible portrayal and is simply mesmerizing as the Warlord, in spite of the fact that he was actually Swedish. Stanwyck is aptly helpless, confused and vulnerable as the heroine. It's also a pleasure to see Walter Connolly in a different role, as an amoral "entrepreneur". Toshia Mori is deliciously evil as Asther's double-crossing mistress.

    This film demonstrates that the Occidentals, at least up to that time, still did not fully appreciate and understand Oriental Cultures, dismissing its people as cruel and savage.

    Beautiful sets and décors.
  • Barbara Stanwyck and Nils Asther star in "The Bitter Tea of General Yen," a 1933 film also starring Walter Connelly and Toshia Mori.

    Stanwyck plays missionary Megan Davis who comes to China during their civil war in order to marry another missionary, Dr. Strike (Gavin Gordon). Before they can be married, they have to save orphans left in an orphanage some distance from Snanghai. While there, the couple get separated, and Megan ends up a guest of a General Yen, whom she had actually met earlier. She also meets his mistress, Mah-Li (Mori), with whom she becomes close. General Yen is attracted to Megan, and she to him -- both attracted and repelled -- and when Mah-Li is accused of selling secrets to the enemy, Megan begs that her life be spared.

    This is such an unusual film for Frank Capra, and such an unusual film, period. It was banned in England because of miscegenation, even though the main characters are actually played by white people, Nils Asther being Swedish. This is precode, and the Hayes code really clamped down in the U.S. Anna May Wong was problematic casting for The Good Earth and Dragon Seed, and therefore wasn't cast, because she could not appear opposite a white man. Featuring an interracial couple, even if they were playing the same race, likely would mean the movie would be rejected by many theater chains in regions in which anti-Asian prejudice was particularly severe. The new Motion Picture Production Code of 1934, pandering to segregationists, forbade filmmakers from portraying miscegenation in a positive light. Casting a Chinese-American opposite a Caucasian might be construed as promoting miscegenation.

    The film is very atmospheric, sexually charged, and beautifully acted by the leads. It was particularly a tour de force for Asther, though his career eventually fizzled. Walter Connelly plays a different kind of character, a tough American siding with General Yen.

    Well worth seeing for its place in history as well as for Stanwyck and Asther.
  • Frank Capra, good director as he was, was ruthless in his ambition and self-promotion. He began, rather clumsily, as a showy visual director. He quickly realised however that he would get more kudos by refining and restraining his technique. By 1933, he had gained a substantial reputation and enough weight at Columbia studios to push for his own projects. He decided what he would like next was an Academy Award, and thus plumped for this sweeping love story set in foreign climes, conspicuously lavish and action-filled in the cash-strapped early 30s, especially by the standards of "poverty row" studio Columbia. Surely, he no doubt thought, this would strike Oscar gold.

    Carpa chose for his star the rising and now very bankable Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck's greatest asset it seems was her ability to show great emotion, even fiery rage, without once slipping into hammy hysterics. She is all cool passion, and it is very effective here. Nils Asther, in the title role, is very good too. He is a little theatrical and stylised in his gesture and mannerisms, but like Stanwyck he is calm and restrained, and certainly resists any temptation to turn the Mandarin general into a crude stereotype. And yet he is full of character. There's one great moment, where he stuffs an unwanted cigarette into the mouth of a guard without even looking round, as casually as if the man was an ashtray. Importantly, Stanwyck and Asther have great chemistry, and the performances all round are very fine.

    Carpa himself is obviously trying hard to load the picture with style and atmosphere, with moody lighting and a roving camera. One of his best techniques seems to have been perfected here, and that is his one of having the camera amidst a group of people like an imaginary extra person on the set. A really excellent example of this is in the first scene where the pastor makes his speech. The camera stays fixed, while a number of other silhouetted figures stop to listen. This has the dual function of making us feel like we are part of this community, and of drawing attention to the man and his words. The shot is punctuated by a neat whip pan into a close-up of a Chinese man's face. There is a feeling however that Capra is trying to turn every moment into a climax, and pretty soon the exquisite shot compositions and endless whip pans start to dull in effect. The dream sequence in particular could have been a little less heavy-handed.

    All in all, Capra has made a decent little film here. Minimal lighting and a tight editing pattern has cunningly disguised what is actually rather a low budgeted affair. Eerie sound design contributes a lot to the mysterious, oriental feel. But in spite of all the director's best intentions, The Bitter Tea of General Yen was a flop which received exactly zero Oscar nominations. Ironically, while today some may object to Asther performing in yellowface, at the time it was frowned upon for its positive portrayal of interracial love. It is also ironic that, despite all his hopes being pinned on this one, a different Capra movie (Lady for a Day) was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director. Lady for a Day is far less ostentatious, but it is a lot more like the homely heart-warming fare for which Capra would later be known. Was Lady for a Day really better received because it was up Capra's street, so to speak? Or did Capra deliberately re-brand himself in the mould of his first Oscar success?
  • 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..
  • Warning: Spoilers
    Definitely the most "Un-Capra" film that the director ever made. It's a shame he never did anything near as good or interesting after, because "Yen" is pretty amazing. A young Barbara Stanwyck is the fiancé of an American missionary who is rescued from Chinese Civil War violence by the notorious warlord General Yen (Nils Asther, extraordinary). He takes her back to his huge palace, and soon Stanwyck realizes he does not wish for her ever to leave. She finds herself being drawn to the mysterious Yen against her will, a man who is both shocking in his cold cruelness (ordering the execution of men in his palace grounds)and yet fascinating in his cultured, seductive manner. The film is best known for being a remarkable Pre-code attempt at showing a "forbidden" romance between an Eastern man and a Western woman, but it has many other subtle layers too. Yen seems to be playing power games with Megan, encounters that become increasingly charged as the film progresses. Megan's ingrained Christian attitudes and her Western beliefs are constantly challenged by Yen. The most talked-about scene in the film is, of course, the remarkable dream sequence where Megan's sub-conscious attraction to Yen is obvious. It's an incredibly sensual scene, and film. The atmosphere created by Capra and photographer Joseph Walker is astonishing, and frame after frame is beautiful. Nils Asther's performance is remarkable, and he inhabits his role so completely that we almost forget he is a Swede merely playing at being Chinese.
  • yellowdog200212 January 2008
    This little known film represents fine work by everybody involved. Barbara Stanwyck and Nils Asther are absolutely mesmerizing. You would not know it is a Frank Capra film-- it has none of his familiar "life is good" feeling. Though, his fine direction shows. The street scenes in war-torn Shanghai will have you on edge. Stanwyck, the American do-gooder, barges in where brave men fear to go,and plays it beautifully. She learns many lessons along the way. All of the sets are impeccably done. The Missionery's house looks just right. Yen's palace is rich and beautiful. The train scenes are great. This has been tagged as Drama and War, but it is also a magnificent romance. It was my late husband's favorite film.
  • For those who think that Frank Capra only produced "Capracorn'..well, think again. One reviewer dismisses this film as 'melodramatic' is, in fact, a subtle, powerful exploration of sexual politics, racism, and human passion.Stanwyck, and the almost forgotten Nils asther, ignite the screen. This film also shows another often overlooked side of Capra, his fascination with the Orient, especially China.
  • Years ago I tried watching it off part-way through the film because I thought that the casting of Nils Asther as "General Yen" was ridiculous and rather insensitive since he looks about as Chinese as Nipsy Russell. However, on a second viewing I found that the movie STILL had a lot going for it. Plus, like it or not, casting Westerners in leading roles of Asian characters was the norm in the 1930s and 40s--there's no getting past this with only a very few exceptions.

    What did I like about the film? Well, first off, despite being made in Hollywood, Columbia did an exceptional job in getting the look correct. Very impressive sets, costumes and convincing battle scenes all indicate that this was a top project for a studio which, at the time, was definitely a second-tier company. Heck, MGM and Warner would have been proud to make a movie that looked this good--and they were the "big money" studios. It certainly was a pretty film to look at and lovely cinematography sure helped as well.

    Second, while the movie has some silly stereotypes, in a way it is also very modern compared to other pictures of the day. It dares to consider the possibility of interracial love (something banned when the new Production Code was put in place the following year) and despite initially come off as a demon, General Yen was quite decent and civilized in his own manner. He definitely was NOT some one-dimensional Asian caricature--having greater depth than you'd usually find in non-White characters of the day.

    Finally, while odd and fully of bizarre twists, the plot really was pretty exciting and romantic. I especially loved the silly but majorly cool dream that Barbara Stanwyck had soon after Yen took her into protective custody! So, if you are looking for an unusual, pretty and very interesting film from Hollywood's golden era, then look no further. This is quite an unusual film and you won't soon forget it.

    By the way, after watching this film, try SHANGHAI EXPRESS. While many of the plot elements are similar, notice how different Warner Oland's Chinese warlord character differs from Nils Asther's---there is quite the contrast.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    I knew going into this film what to expect just by the basic plot outline. What I didn't expect was how well made this film was.

    Normally with these old 30's dramas you get decent actors and a decent storyline with an average script. The actors have to keep up the paces to make the film work. This is not the case with this film. I was really surprised at the quality of every aspect of this film.

    The star of this film is not Barbara Stanwyck. Although most would think by her name alone it would be but she's very ordinary in this one. A lot of her 30's stuff is "Joe basic average". The star of this is Nils Asther. He is an absolute chameleon in this. The make-up he has is so convincing you'll look twice. Even though you can hear his Swedish accent come through you can still see how good his attempt at Chinese was. This film was his absolute pinnacle.

    The action scenes are done very very well. The shootout close to the end and the sequence early on in the orphanage are really very convincing. I'm just amazed at how well this film holds up even in this day and time.

    This film is known for one thing and one thing only and that's the interracial overtones it has. I'm here to tell you folks, it's so mild it didn't even come into play for my viewing. I mean it's there but the story really is about the downfall of a ruthless Chinese General. He's blindsided by the American girl he keeps hostage and his attempts to woo her.

    The ending though reminds me of a very similar film from around the same year...The Barbarian. Both have a very ridiculous ending. It doesn't fit with how Stanwyck played the character. I guess that's what the author of the book intended. Always confuses me how here and there, back in the day, at how Hollywood throws these curve ball films in to make America think about interracial issues. What's makes me laugh is does anyone remember back then any stars actually doing what they portray? There's no way they thought this would be a financial success back then with this subject matter.

    All this being said, this is a really fine effort. Just a very well made and engrossing film.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    This was clearly a rather high budget film for 1933, and interestingly was the first film shown at the new Radio City Music Hall. Directed by Frank Capra, it is a pre-code film, so there are some risqué scenes...well done. Its main distinction, however, is that it was one of the first movies to deal with interracial sexual attraction. Unfortunately, it was before its was a box office failure, although in recent years it has been uniformly praised.

    Barbara Stanwyck and Gavin Gordon (a missionary) are preparing to marry in China. But, the Chinese Civil War intervenes when they rush off, just before their wedding, to rescue some orphans. They become separated (great crowd scenes) and Stanwyck is rescued...or is it warlord General Yen (Nils Asther, a European actor). Stanwyck awakens to find herself in Yen's sumptuous summer palace. She witnesses a mass execution ordered by Yen, writes letters to her fiancé that are never delivered, and because she is thought to be dead, he holds her against her will...well, sort of, because she has erotic dreams about General Yen (wonderfully creative fantasy sequence). Stanwyck meets Yen's financial adviser -- American Walter Connolly. It turns out, however, that the general's concubine is actually a spy, and she is sentenced to death. Stanwyck pleads for her life, and Yen agrees to spare her in order to keep Stanwyck. The general's army deserts him, but Stanwyck goes to him willingly as Yen prepares to drink poisoned tea (hence the title). And, what happens??? You'll have to watch the film to find out. It's simply too stunning to tell you.

    There are 3 primary actors of interest here. The primary star is Barbara Stanwyck, who is superb. I've recently watched several of her early films, and I have been very impressed. Although I had heard the name, I was not familiar with Nils Asther, and after watching him here, where he successfully plays an Asian man, I hope to see more of his work. Walter Connolly -- Yen's Western adviser -- usually plays comedies, but this is a serious role for him, and he plays it very well.

    Highly recommended, and you may even want it on your DVD shelf.
  • This picture is on TV pretty often, so often that I usually miss it. The title sounds uninviting, like a dull movie about a tea plantation. Then I saw it on a big screen last month at a film festival and I was astonished. I was especially astonished by Nils Asther's portrayal of the General, and I'm not sure I've seen him in anything else. It was a hypnotic performance, as good a job of acting as has ever been put on the Silver Screen. The film was early Stanwyck but she was as good as ever and, coupled with Asther, they worked magic.

    The picture has been reviewed about 50 times now and everyone recaps the plot. It's enough to say it is possibly Capra's best effort. I thought the pace of the film compared to "Lost Horizon", the action and energy of the opening scenes and then the placid unfolding of the main story, which in both cases turns out to be a love story - and then the knockout ending. Also noteworthy are the spectacular sets and the shimmering, immaculate photography. I saw it at Cinevent, Columbus, O., 5/13.
  • Spondonman25 March 2005
    Bitter Tea is one of my favourite Capra films, the earliest one I would call that "much over-worked phrase", a classic. I don't know if the original story was much different, but even being pre-Code this film would be shot much differently nowadays - unfortunately, of course! It appears to be just as hung up about love between the races as any other Golden Age movie was, except the tale's conclusion is more open to interpretation and franker in its portrayal. But even that was spoiled by Walter Connolly's Jerry Springer type moral ramblings at the end as solace for any outraged whites.

    It's a murky, atmospheric, lustrous (in the romantic arc-light), absorbing 83 minute journey through a rather horrible world, populated by semi human beings - naturally Western wars are so much more civilised affairs. Throughout Stanwyck does her best and looks her best too, no wonder Gen Yen fell for her! I hope modern Scandanavians don't feel too humiliated by Nils Asther playing a Chinaman though (& v.v.) As a non practising Christian I didn't take offence at the criticism levelled at Christianity's manifold moral ambiguities - but enough of all that!

    A wonderful film to sink into every few years not only for the story but also the gleaming photography, the visual composition of the scene near the end where Yen is brewing the tea of the title is so achingly beautiful that it brings the tears to my eyes as I think about it! But remember it was made in 1932 so if you don't like shiny charming creakers it's probably not your cup of tea.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    Like Chaplin, Frank Capra began his film career as a simple, effective comic talent and progressed to 'message movies'. And, as with Chaplin, the populism of his later films demonstrated both a decline in humor and disturbing political ambiguities…

    Capra's films during the early '30s were likable adventures and comedies notable for polish, pace and variety... "The Miracle Woman" and the witty "Platinum Blonde" were sparkling vehicles for Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Harlow, but it is "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" that remains Capra's finest film…

    This is an exotic romance in which Stanwyck's prim American missionary is held hostage by a sinister but seductive Chinese warlord… Its story of a converter converted is not only erotic – a startling dream sequence reveals the woman's hesitant, nervous awakening to her physical desires but a complex, tragic investigation of culture clash
  • This film was made before Hollywood strengthened the censorship code. The sexual chemistry between Barbara Stanwyck and Nils Asther really amazed me! Director Frank Capra filled his story with strong overtones and suggestive dialogue. Very entertaining.
  • thao23 December 2012
    Warning: Spoilers
    There are some mild spoilers here. Read at your own risk!

    Anyone expecting to see something shocking from this pre-code film - The Bitter Tea of General Yen - is going to be disappointed. Miscegenation is not an issue today so most people will miss out on the big scandal! However it was a big thing back in the 30s and after the code came into full force a romantic relationship between an American and a Chinese man was unthinkable in a Hollywood film.

    This film is rather a mixed bag when it comes to racism. It starts out rather judgmental about the Chinese people but slowly our heroine starts to realize that there is more than one kind of logic. One of the best examples is when general Yen kills the prisoners because he has no food to feed them. Surely it is better to kill them than let them starve? And later Yen says something to Megan the audience is most likely to agree with: "You are afraid of death as you're afraid of life!" We know he is right and by that time we want Megan to understand that she might have been wrong all the time. We've fallen for Yen, as hard as Megan has.

    That is the genius of Frank Capra and the writers of this film. They make us fall for a man who is a mass murderer and a kidnapper. Megan and the viewers are all suffering from a Stockholm syndrome..., or did we just let our guard - and our prejudice down? If the latter is what happened to you while watching this film then you know why this is a great and one of Capra's best. I wonder why it is not better know...
  • Warning: Spoilers
    (Contains spoiler)

    This film is excellent, but one scene stands out. This is a dream sequence which exposes the conflict in Megan's mind concerning General Yen. Very Freudian!

    Megan is dreaming. A sinister Fu Manchu-like figure is approaching her. It is General Yen wearing traditional Chinese clothes with a skullcap and a long gown. Long talon-like fingers extended to claim her. It is clearly a fear-of-rape dream, made worse by Megan's horror of everything oriental, especially General Yen.

    Suddenly a masked figure appears, clad in a dashing military uniform. He leaps on to the balcony, shoots the sinister Chinese, and sweeps Megan into his arms. Megan gazes at her savior. He is leaning over her but she isn't objecting this time. Suddenly her romantic rescuer rips off his mask. It is General Yen.

    This is Frank Capra at his best.
  • It's a pity Barbara Stanwyck looks so much like a young Margaret Thatcher, Britain's 'Iron Lady' prime minister during the 1980s. Stanwyck's performance includes some of the self-righteous polemic that Thatcher was famous for, as well. Today's audiences will be forgiven for seeing Stanwyck as a rather prime and prissy Hollywood star, who never-the-less is quite alluring. Her performance here is no exception to that rule.

    Straight off the ship in a pre-communist Shanghai, Megan Davis (played by Stanwyck) arrives in China to marry her missionary sweetheart and convert the heathen millions to Christianity. Will she succeed or fail at her quest, after the marriage is postponed due to civil war, and she is taken captive by the ruthless warlord, General Yen (Nils Asther)? Some have called this Frank Capra picture "disturbing", and it is certainly unusual. The plot, although including some well-filmed action sequences, (if you look beyond some of the rather flimsy low budget sets) is largely a psychological one, playing out relentlessly to the bitter end.

    While the film stereotypes the Chinese, Mah-Li, (Yen's mistress), is played beautifully by the 21 year-old Japanese-American, Toshia Mori. She displays a timeless oriental beauty and economy on screen that has not aged at all in over seventy years. Indeed, Mori turns in arguably the best performance in the entire picture (although Stanwyck has a far harder role to play – which she does admirably.) Jones (Walter Connolly), as a mercenary American, in some respects pre-figures the Rick character in "Casablanca" some nine years later, sans (to all appearances anyhow) any moral scruples whatsoever.

    It looks like Stanwyck used a stand-in for the nude bath sequence, but this is no flesh-pot picture: everything's filmed in a restrained style. However, it's doubtful that the theme could have been tackled quite this way even five years later, as it pre-dates the censorship clamp-down that was just around the corner, (which helped set in stone many Hollywood conventions).

    As with any picture from this era, it is important to view it as a product of its age. In that context, the film still plays well. Its heavy-handed dealing with ethnicity might disturb some modern audiences: "You're dealing with a white woman here!" Jones advises Yen. Stanwyck is stunning – but paradoxically, not in the soft focus shots, finely made-up and in splendid costumes. Rather, she reveals a raw energy in the few sharp bold close-ups we get of her, scattered throughout the film.

    Sure, its pure melodrama, (hence the soft focus 'weepy' shots); but it's played out on a psychological level. In this respect, the film is decades ahead of its time. Filmically, it was still close enough to the days of the golden silents to share many of the conventions of that age. An interesting exercise for anyone already familiar with the film is to watch with no sound. Does the film still work viewed that way? You decide!

    That the sound gave some challenges can be evidenced. Take, for example, a relatively unimportant sequence where Stanwyck and Connolly walk from one room to another, deep in conversation. It appears to have been one long sound take, but half way through, someone perhaps missed a line, or a mic dropped into the frame. Whatever the reason, there's a jump-cut to a same-angle, slightly closer shot, mid-sentence, with perfect lip-sync. Then a little later, another cut back to what could well be the original tracking shot – although possibly it's three takes spliced together. Nevertheless, the sequence works, and although technically we are seeing visual jump cuts, the sound and action is matched so perfectly that they are not noticeable. Such quirks are well worth study by film students; one reason why I consider viewing early Hollywood is so vital.

    Consider the moving-train sequence, which is carried-off excellently. We have the train sounds in the background, coming to the point where one wonders if there's a fault on the sound-track. It becomes rather irritating, which ironically is why it works so well. In later pictures, we get the 'clickity-clack' in the first shot, and then down and under once the dialogue starts. This was probably a 'live' effect, and not dubbed in later: it certainly would have been the easiest way to get it in the can once the sound levels were established.

    This sequence is remarkable in another way as well. We actually have realistic movement on the set. Stanwyck's body, as she lies on a couch, is quite clearly quivering as the train races along the tracks. Why later films almost always show train carriages with everything bolted down solid and a slightly jumpy back projection is puzzling: certainly a Hollywood convention that never worked. Later directors should have paid closer attention to "Bitter Tea" on first release; but that might have been beneath their dignity, since it was produced by despised Columbia Pictures on a tight budget.

    There's a religious context to the movie, although it is not altogether clearly thought-out or realised. There's a Buddhist temple sequence – a necessary plot-point - but none inside a church. Stanwyck, as the chain-smoking missionary, is not above preaching, and delivers some memorable lines: "You can always do so much more with mercy than you can with murder," she proclaims, following with an indirect reference to Jesus' sacrifice on the cross for mankind. Later she pleads: "I want you to think of all those things, and then forgive…" But that's about as theological as the film gets. Can Megan Davis live up to the high ideals that she preaches? That's the big question the movie asks. And it's the crucial issue that General Yen stakes his life upon.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    I didn't actually know it was from director Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life) till I actually started watching it, it featured in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, that is why I watched. Set during the Chinese Civil War, American missionary Megan Davis (Double Indemnity's Barbara Stanwyck) arrives in Shanghai to marry Dr. Robert 'Bob' Strike (Gavin Gordon), but they postpone the wedding to rescue orphans from an orphanage burning in the battlefield. The group are separated in the chaos, and Megan faints, waking in the palace of the man who saved/kidnapped her, warlord General Yen (Nils Asther). The General's mistress Mah-Li (Toshia Mori) gets close to Megan, and he accuses her of betraying him, giving enemies classified information. He falls for Megan, and does spare Mah-Li's life, which doesn't make his financial adviser Jones (Walter Connolly) very happy. Megan does slowly start to fall for the cruel, powerful and gentle General, but Mah-Li did in fact betray him and has destroyed his empire, and Megan watches him kill himself with his last (poisoned) bitter tea. Also starring Lucien Littlefield as Mr. Jacobson, Richard Loo as Captain Li, Clara Blandick as Mrs. Jackson, Moy Ming as Dr. Lin, Robert Wayne as Reverend Bostwick, Knute Erickson as Dr. Hansen, Ella Hall as Mrs. Amelia Hansen, Arthur Millett as Mr. Pettis, Helen Jerome Eddy as Miss Reed and Martha Mattox as Miss Avery. Stanwyck does very well as the lead female character, and Swedish actor Asther is superbly subtle as the nasty General, and there are some eye-catching moments, such as the battle sequences, so it is an impressive classic drama. Very good!
  • Warning: Spoilers
    The American missionary Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) arrives in Shanghai during the Chinese Civil War to marry the missionary Dr. Robert Strife (Gavin Gordon). However, Robert postpones their wedding to rescue some orphans in an orphanage in Chapei section that is burning in the middle of a battlefield. While returning to Shanghai with the children, they are separated in the crowd, Megan faints but is saved by General Yen (Nils Ashter) and brought by train to his palace. Along the days, the General's mistress Mah-Li (Toshia Mori) becomes close to Megan and when she is accused of betrayal for giving classified information to the enemies, Megan asks for her life. The cruel General Yen falls in love for the naive and pure Megan and accepts her request to spare the life of Mah-Li against the will of his financial adviser Jones (Walter Connoly). Meanwhile Megan feels attracted by the powerful and gentle General Yen, but resists to his flirtation. When Mah-Li betrays General Yen and destroys his empire, Megan realizes that to be able to do good works, one has to have wisdom and decides to stay with him while the General drinks his bitter last tea.

    "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" is an exotic romance about forbidden love. The movie technically is wonderful, with magnificent cinematography in black and white; a lovely twenty-five year-old Barbara Stanwyck; and great scenarios. However, the story is very racist in the present days, with the Westerns trying to change the millenarian Chinese culture and impose Christianism as if they were the owners of the truth. The situation of Megan, divided between her Christian principles and the attraction for a "barbarian of a sub-culture", is dated in the present days but absolutely acceptable in the 30's. Her sexual tension, expressed by her nightmare, is an impressive representation of her real feelings. My vote is seven.

    Title (Brazil): "O Último Chá do General Yen" ("The Last Tea of General Yen")
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