THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN – Frank Capra
THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN
Production: Columbia Direction: Frank Capra Screenplay: Edward E. Paramore; based on the novel of the same name by Grace Zaring Stone
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Editing: no listing
Running time: 87 minutes
Megan Davis …………………………………….. Barbara Stanwyck
General Yen …………………………………………………… Nils Asther
Jones …………………………………………………….. Walter Connolly
Mah-Li ………………………………………… Toshia Mori
Dr. Robert Strike ………………………… Gavin Gordon
Captain Li …………………………………… Richard Loo
When one views Capra’s films, The Bitter Tea of General Yen and Losi Horizon (1937) stand apart from his usual exploration of American ideology, for they have backgrounds which are diametrically opposed to the world of Mr. Deeds and John Doe. They both take place in the Orient, but whereas Lost Horizon is set in the best of all possible worlds, The Bitter Tea of General Yen takes place amid civil war, chaos, and famine. The leaders of Shangri-La believe that harmony—through goodness, truth, and beauty—prolongs life, whereas General Yen holds his great power through a complete distrust of humanity, showing no mercy and having no regard for human life. Lost Horizon is a story about an Occidental missionary who creates a paradise in an isolated valley in the mountains of Tibet, but The Bitter Tea of General Yen is about the incongruity and futility of missionaries and their work in China. To savor fully the delightful jabs at Christianity and missionaries in China, one must realize that Capra was, and is, a devout Catholic. Not only does Capra crucify the missionary, but also his story makes Christianity a fatal pill for General Yen: the first time he shows mercy to anyone it leads to his quick destruction.
The story of The Bitter Tea of General Yen opens in Shanghai on a scene of utter chaos: peasants flee as an army moves amidst the turbulence of the civil war. Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck), a newly arrived American missionary, is being carried through the screaming crowds in a rickshaw, when the “boy” pulling it is struck and killed by an ominous black limousine. Kneeling in the crowd, Megan attempts to comfort the dying boy, then vents her fury on the driver of the limousine. The driver does not understand what she is talking about, but then the smiling, sardonic figure of General Yen
(Nils Asther) emerges from the car. Speaking in English but not understanding her concern, he tells her that life is cheap in China and not to worry, for he will take her to her destination. Although he is immaculately dressed in his general’s uniform and is exotically handsome, she is repelled by his lack of concern and inhumane attitude. She curtly refuses him and turns to make her way on foot, while he looks after her with an insolent smile as if to foreshadow a future meeting between them.
Meanwhile, the missionaries have gathered for the wedding of Megan to Dr. Robert Strike (Gavin Gordon), another missionary. Dr. Strike has not arrived on the scene when Megan makes her appearance. The missionaries themselves are an unchristian lot, finding nothing good in the Chinese. The house where they have gathered is completely American; there is no Oriental design about it, nor are there any Orientals gathered for the marriage ceremony. When Dr. Strike does arrive, it is to postpone his wedding to Megan, for. he says he must leave at once to rescue children left in an orphanage which is dangerously near the fighting line. Megan insists, to the horror of all the ladies present, that she will accompany him. Dr. Strike is helpless to deny her and allows her to go along.
When she tells him of her strange meeting with General Yen, Strike is amazed, for Yen is not supposed to be in Shanghai. Since Yen could give him a safe conduct pass, they go to the general’s headquarters. As Megan waits outside, Strike begs Yen for the pass. General Yen scoffs at him, but he sits down and writes in Chinese calligraphy what Strike believes to be a pass. Actually, however, it is a message introducing Strike as a Christian fool who prefers rescuing a band of lowly children “without ancestors” to passing the night with his bride in his arms.
Megan and Strike get an automobile and reach the orphanage, where they assemble the children for flight. But the streets are full of fighting, and a band of soldiers commandeers the automobile. In the ensuing struggle, Megan is separated from Strike and the children and is felled by a blow.
When she regains consciousness, she finds that somehow she has been transported to the secret and distant summer palace of General Yen. She is surrounded by every possible luxury, and when she steps out on her balcony, she sees the expansiveness and beauty of her prison. When Yen enters the room to inquire about her, she asks him why she has been kidnaped. He laughs and tells her that he has saved her life. Coldly, she informs him that she must return to Shanghai, but he tells her that it is impossible at this time because of heavy fighting; however, as soon as it is safe, he will send her back in a special train. For the meanwhile, he asks if she will be his guest and whether he may expect her presence at dinner that evening. Then he gallantly bows as he closes her door. Not for one moment does Megan believe Yen. She will not succumb to his charm, nor be pleasant or agreeable in any way. She is a prisoner.
Next, Mah-Li (Toshia Mori), Yen’s young mistress, enters and inquires if Megan has all she needs. Megan likes Mah-Li and attempts to learn more about Yen from her. Megan refuses, however, to associate with Yen, and as the days pass, she becomes confidential with Mah-Li. One night, while the moon is full, Megan and Mah-Li watch from the balcony as Yen’s soldiers romance the local ladies. A whistle from below makes Mah-Li twitter, for it is her young secret lover, Captain Li (Richard Loo), Yen’s right-hand man. Mah-Li implores Megan not to tell Yen, and smilingly Megan agrees and tells her to go meet her beau. Alone, she watches the lovely setting and then falls asleep.
Megan dreams that a sinister Yen in mandarin robes is coming towards her with long claws. She cowers on the bed in fear, but there is a beating at the door as her rescuer attempts to break in. Finally, the door is smashed. Her hero enters and with one blow destroys Yen. She opens her arms to her uniformed hero, who is also Yen, and he bends down and kisses her. She awakens with a start and Is troubled, pondering her dream.
Daily, Megan rejects Yen’s invitations to dine with him. Eventually she changes her mind, deciding to go down to dinner to meet Jones (Walter Connolly), who is Yen’s financial adviser and a wily American whom she hopes will persuade Yen to release her. At first, she lets Mah-Li dress her in Oriental attire, and puts on makeup, but then, fearing that she is succumbing to Yen, she wipes off her makeup and dresses herself in her New England attire.
At dinner, Jones tells Yen that Mah-Li and Captain Li are betraying him, and Yen indifferently decides to exterminate them. Later, a panic-stricken Mah-Li tells Megan bluntly that her guilt has been exposed and she will die for her sins. Megan implores Yen to be forgiving and let Mah-Li live; carried away with the situation, she begs him to use his God-given privilege, promising that he will know for the first time in his life what real happiness is. She breaks off in tears, realizing that she has almost confessed that she herself loves him. This does not escape Yen, who forgives Mah-Li, not in order to show that he too can display the mercy of the Christian world, but to show Mah-Li how foolish Megan is to plead on the girl’s behalf, for he will let MahLi go only if Megan will stand as hostage for her. He is confident that MahLi will betray him again, and he drives the bargain, not to gain Megan’s love on those terms, but to prove to her how false her Christian beliefs are; in this circumstance they simply will not work. As Yen confides to Jones subsequently, he is “going to convert a missionary.”
Mah-Li does indeed betray General Yen a second time—outrageously, mercilessly, and with utter finality. Through her treachery, Yen’s treasure train is stolen, his troops desert him, and no one is left in the summer palace except Megan, Jones, and General Yen.
When Megan realizes the extent of Mah-Li’s perfidy, she goes to Yen,
expecting him to demand payment of her honor. Instead, he gives her complete freedom; he will not take anything the heart does not freely give. She does not understand that it was her life, not her love, she pledged when she stood as hostage for Mah-Li’s loyalty. Megan is frightened, and Yen scoffs at her fear of death, which she seems to fear as much as she has life. He confesses that he had intended to go to her room and kill her, after which the two would be joined in some celestial life as free lovers.
Megan runs to her room, dresses herself in Oriental garb, and paints her face. Meanwhile, Yen prepares the “bitter tea,” the poison he will take to escape the world. She returns to him dressed in rich Chinese attire to affirm her love for him, which she realizes is her truest and finest emotion. She kneels at his feet weeping, and he dries her tears with a fine silk handkerchief as he slowly drinks his “bitter tea.”
In the final sequence, Megan and Jones are together on a boat going back to Shanghai. Jones, who has been drinking enough to feel more than mellow, is talking about Yen, whom he characterizes as “a great guy.” Yen had believed that we never die; we only change. Maybe, even now, he is the wind pushing their sail; maybe he is also the wind playing around her hair. Jones hopes that when he dies, the “guy” in charge of changing things will send him wherever Yen is; he looks at Megan, and ventures the thought that she will be there, too.
The Bitter Tea of General Yen opened New York’s Radio City Music Hall as a motion picture theater, with a live prologue entertainment. New York critics had praise for the film, but in its general release it was deemed too bizarre, too esoteric for rural America. It is still one of Capra’s favorites of all his films, and he was disappointed that it did not receive any Academy Award nominations. He had filmed it carefully, lovingly, and yet it was not for the masses. Almost in resignation, expecting nothing, he selected an inconsequentially light love story, It Happened One Night (1934), for one of his next efforts. He was lucky enough to borrow Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable from other studios for the leads, and at Academy Awards time, he swept the boards with a five-point major winner and made a great deal of money at the box office as well. Today, however, whenever there is a Capra, Columbia, or Barbara Stanwyck retrospective, The Bitter Tea of General Yen rates high as a favorite.
Although critics did not consider Barbara Stanwyck’s role as Megan Davis to be one of her more memorable performances, today’s audiences respond to her sympathetically; as a missionary who is converted to the real meaning of life, she is very believable. The picture belongs, however, to Nils Asther as General Yen. He gives a superb performance, his very best in film, although he had also played an Oriental prince in Garbo’s silent Wild Orchids (1929), looking very handsome and rated as one of the few actors strong enough not to be emasculated by Garbo’s strength. Asther makes Yen a fully dimensional character, a pagan who loved and lost, but whose loving had made life worthwhile.
The picture was denounced by Protestants as an affront to their religion and their missionaries. It was banned throughout the British Empire, making it one of the few big Capra films to have lost money.