The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) Director: Frank Capra
“East or West, men seldom deviate very far from their main passion in life.”
The Bitter Tea of General Yen is a memorable film, reminiscent of Hollywood fascinations with mysteries of China -recall earlier films like Broken Blossoms (1919) and Shanghai Express (1932). The film is worth watching at least once for several memorable scenes and a powerful story from early Hollywood.
The film was highly controversial for its depiction of an on-screen interracial kiss, and is now considered controversial by modern sensibilities for the “yellow face” portrayal of General Yen by noted silent film star, Nils Asther. Asther was a Swedish actor who was a closeted homosexual and married Greta Garbo as one of her “sailors” to disguise his sexual identity.
It tells the story of childhood sweetheart missionaries in Shanghai, China, during the Chinese Civil War that swept the Maoists to power. Amidst the violence the sweethearts, Megan and Bob, try to rescue an orphanage, despite the other older and skeptical missionaries who are prejudiced against the violent Chinese. The couple appeals to the powerful Chinese Warlord, General Yen, for safe passage. He gives them a humorous document in Chinese that causes the other soldiers to laugh and steal their car once they arrive at the orphanage. In the scramble to board the train returning to Shanghai, Megan is knocked unconscious and she awakens on a train, rescued by General Yen. She is brought to his summer palace while he plots to overtake another province, and his American financial advisor has acquired $6 million housed near his palace. While Megan slowly falls in love with General Yen, his concubine Mah-li, betrays him. Before Yen can kill her, Megan defends her and claims if Mah-li has betrayed him, he can kill Megan instead. Meanwhile, Mah-li leaks information to the opposing forces at the temple, and the next day Yen’s riches are raided and his servants abandon him. In his empty palace, he pours himself poisonous tea, committing suicide while Megan embraces him claiming she will never leave him. The closing scenes show Megan and Yen’s drunken financial advisor aboard a boat bound for home, with the hope of meeting Yen again in another life.
The most memorable scenes in the film are 1) an erotic dream sequence in which Megan imagines a night of wild passion with General Yen, and 2) the closing scenes of the film as General Yen finds himself betrayed and abandoned and chooses to kill himself with his poisonous tea rather.
It was the first film to be played at the Radio City Music Hall, though quickly yanked due to unpopularity, most likely due to growing racist attitudes toward Chinese and “miscegenation”. It was heavily edited before release in Britain. The story is based on a novel of the same name by Grace Zaring Stone published in 1932.