The popular conception of Frank Capra as a director of mindless sentimentalities doesn't hold up very well. Yes, it's wholly impossible to regard such films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Mr. Deeds Goes to Town as anything but simply fables about purity overcoming corruption, but it's not as easy at it appears to apply the same framework to It's a Wonderful Life, in which Jimmy Stewart spends over an hour considering suicide, and a socially conservative morality finds itself wedged into a rather stark anti-capitalist polemic. Let's not even get started on the divine proto-screwball comedy It Happened One Night.
Which is all to say that I don't toe the party line about "Capra-corn," and yet even I was totally unprepared for the brutality of 1933's The Bitter Tea of General Yen, one of the last films the director made before breaking big in the mid-'30s and becoming a professional syrup salesman.
It was one of two surprises that the film held for me, as a matter of fact, the other being that this is a film with a balls-out crazy approach to racial and gender politics. By no means does one forget that it was made by a right-winger during a time of heightened fear of the Yellow Peril, but the mere fact that the film very directly engages and subverts the audience's expectations about that type of story is something that I have never witnessed in a film of this vintage.
In late-1920's Shanghai, near the start of the Chinese Civil War, an idealistic American named Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) has come to do good and marry her missionary childhood sweetheart, Bob Strife. Unfortunately, Megan is naïve as to just how vicious a war zone can be, and Shanghai very quickly corrects her on this matter, when her arrival into the city is christened with the death of her rickshaw-driver and the complete inattention of all passers-by - Chinese and white both - as he breathes his last.
70 years on, when the dark side of Capra is traditionally represented by Jimmy Stewart on the bridge in that Christmas movie, The Bitter Tea of General Yen is shocking and almost exhilaratingly violent. Shanghai is one of the most ghastly-looking places I've ever seen in a 1930s American film, bodies strewn all about, fires everywhere. It's clearly a soundstage, but it looks less like a normal Hollywood version of Asia and more like a German Expressionist depiction of Hell. Expressionism has its fingerprints all over this movie, in fact, and that is quite its own sort of strange.
Capra would later admit that this film was his naked bid for an Oscar, and it's exceedingly satisfying for me to learn that people were playing the "gravitas = awards" card before the Academy's tenth birthday (ironically, Capra was nominated that same year for the comedy Lady for a Day, and would eventually win three times that decade, all for comedies). But just because the harshness of The Bitter Tea Etc. has such a banal explanation, doesn't take away from its very real success. This is a nightmarish motion picture, totally unsentimental, and by the standards of the day, totally immoral. It was made during the last Pre-Code year in Hollywood, when you could do whatever the hell you wanted without fear of repercussion (note, please, Stanwyck's nipples on the poster above).
There is absolutely no way in which this chipper disregard for social propriety is more obvious or more welcome than in the film's depiction of West versus East. Now, I'm not going to oversell the degree to which this is a progressive movie. It's quite obvious that the Chinese are, to the filmmakers, inherently brutal and inherently untrustworthy. That is, indeed, the reason that the opening war scenes are so unsparing: they bank on the contemporary audience's belief that "Orientals" were capable of any depravity.
The film carves out its own niche, however, by suggesting that white people are the same. I already mentioned the death of the rickshaw driver in the film's opening, but it's clear through much of the first act that the white missionaries are incompetent at best and evil at worst. Only Bob and Megan wish to do good for its own sake; everyone else just wants to score points for the church. One reverend makes this very clear when he retells a story about how his attempt to explain the crucifixion story to a tribe of Mongols went wrong when that tribe started hanging victims on crosses. The reverend's regret? That he didn't tell the story right. Those dead folks, they're just, whatever.
In the second act, when Megan has been kidnapped by the barbaric General Yen (the unmistakably Danish actor Nils Asther), the only other American around is Jones (Walter Connolly), as crooked and immoral a white man as you could ever hope to see, and another unexpected indictment of the capitalist impulse. It was this character, with his utterly unconscionable All-Americanness, that led the MPAA to refuse to issue a certificate for this film's proposed 1950 re-release.
In short, The Bitter Tea of General Yen is a world without good people; or rather it is a world in which bad people are successful until they fail, and good people are not successful at all. And as the film progresses, and Megan is less and less aware of the absence of other white people, the idea that race predisposes a man to do evil is eventually ignored, and this is ultimately because of the film's other, even more startling racial element.
The M-Word. "Miscegenation." I am at a complete loss to explain how a plot like this got on America's screens in 1933 or any time in the thirty years following, but as the movie rolls on, it becomes obvious that Yen loves Megan, that Megan is sexually fixated on Yen, and this is ultimately presented, unambiguously, as a worthy thing. There is even a dream sequence in which the two kiss, although I strongly doubt that this would have happened if Yen were played by a proper East Asian actor.
Again, I don't want to overplay the degree to which this matters. Death very neatly intervenes before the couple is able to consummate anything. But this moment is explicitly rendered as tragic for that very reason. There's simply no two ways about it: we're supposed to want the white woman and the Chinese man to be together. We recognize the rightness of that. I cannot overemphasize how monstrously rare that idea would be in American cinema over the next few decades. The Bitter Tea is amazingly, crazily brave in going out and being what it is.
It knows this, too. This film starts out with the same racist representations that every film of its generation has, and puts all sorts of lines in the heroine's mouth that ultimately boil down to: "damn them yeller folk." Then, over the next 80-odd minutes (different prints exist, thank you censors), she learns that her religious convictions are a lie, that nothing she has been told to believe is worth trusting, and that the barbarian Chinese man who kidnapped her is more passionate and honest in his emotions than a roomful of stolid white fiancés. Somehow, I don't have a hard time believing that this film flopped hard when it was released and has been forgotten in the years since; but if any Hollywood film from the '30s is positively begging to be rediscovered and treasured as a truly unique piece of craftsmanship and social commentary, this is it.