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Thursday, July 9, 2015

THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1933)

Frank Capra picked up this unlikely project from Herbert Brenon, a major silent director who lost his mojo when sound came in.* (See early announcement poster below.) A fatalistic East-meets-West romance, it flaunts a daring, erotic interracial edge as Barbara Stanwyck’s forthright, naive missionary is separated from her fiancé in a Shanghai riot and finds herself rescued (or is it held prisoner?) by Nils Asther’s General Yen. At first, Babs puts her trust in Toshia Mori, Yen’s unfaithful mistress, then in fellow American Walter Connolly, Yen’s financial advisor. But her real struggle is with her own growing emotional attachment to the mysterious warlord, expressed in a startling Freudian dream. The film is like a fever that needs to break, with stylish ‘oriental’ detail and masochistic sacrifice that dips into Josef von Sternberg territory. Joseph Walker’s atmospheric cinematography deserves extra credit, as does Stanwyck, rarely more effective or beautiful. Columbia lavished money on this, note the fresh footage for the war & riot montage scenes. Modern audiences may have trouble with some non-P.C. elements, though Asther is a believable General Yen even when not a wholly believable Asian, but the film must have been very challenging at the time. During a late, passionate audience between Stanwyck & Asther, a jump in the editing must be a bit of late post-production censorship. A kiss removed? No matter, intent & emotion get thru.

DOUBLE-BILL: The central relationship and a surprising number of plot points from YEN point straight to ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM/’46, later musicalized as THE KING AND I/’56.


SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Some of Brenon’s major silents include a superb BEAU GESTE/’26 with Ronald Colman; and Lon Chaney’s LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH/’28 where he loves, but loses 15 yr-old Loretta Young to . . . Nils Asther.

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