Saturday, 11 December 2010

When Frank met Barbara IV: The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

The final film in this series is, to me, the most interesting and arguably the best. In contemporary China, the fiancée of a missionary finds herself the houseguest of General Yen, a ruthless warlord who is in love with her. Despite herself (and more on this in a moment) she finds she is falling for him. As I mentioned here, this is a film that could not have been made two years later. A mixed race relationship, where one of the elements is a “decent white girl” was far more than the conservative audiences of the 1930s were willing to allow – and it became explicitly forbidden.

Capra directed the film with Oscar success in mind and to ensure recognition of quality by his peers. But it shouldn't have taken him much to realise that the film would not be a hit at the box-office. Despite appearances, the film is (for 1933) on General Yen’s side and quite unsympathetic of white people (Walter Connolly’s Jones, the general’s “financial adviser” comes as particularly unpleasant). The missionaries are presented as prejudiced creatures (not exactly very christian), unwilling to see China beyond their own preconceived ideas. Their lack of interest in the country is openly criticised by Yen, who despite being ruthless, is also a sophisticated character and a lover of fine things. In a sense, he is not quite a Bond villain in the making, like Fu Manchu – While we aren’t given any historical background to the civil unrest (probably audiences would be mildly aware) I strongly suspect that he is not just fighting for power and money; he is also fighting for his own survival - as indeed the film hints at. By the end, our sympathies lay with the character we are told from the start is the enemy.

Of course, not all is perfect – although most of the Chinese characters and extras are played by people of far eastern ancestry, the main part itself is played by Nils Ashter, a Swede. Interestingly, his overpowering presence works in favour of the character and probably made the film acceptable at the time of release (after all, under all the make-up there was a white actor).

Stanwyck’s character, a young American girl called Megan (pronounced Mee-gan, which I found quite strange) starts not terribly far from Alden Pyne in Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American” – dangerously idealist. Of course, she does not have his resources and, unlike him, she gives in. From the moment she sees General Yen, she’s fascinated, but feels rejected (metaphorically quite well represented by a handkerchief). Then despite herself she finds herself more and more attracted to him – although this time she’s the one rejecting his advances – and his handkerchief. In what is the best sequence in the film (and quite explicit too), in her dreams she admits the truth: as she is about to be raped by a Fu Manchu type when at last moment she is saved by a masked hero – however, when he takes off her mask, it’s not her fiancé…

In the end, we are treated to a speculative speech by Walter Connolly – and in Stawyck’s face (she doesn’t say a word, nor does she really need to) we know that his words are really the epilogue. It’s not Capra’s best film, it might not even be one of his most touching – but it is one that is worth looking beyond 1933 and 2010 prejudices.


Evangeline Holland said...

I've read the book on which this film was based, and it's pretty true to the plot. I agree that this isn't the best film (perhaps the rigid adherence to the book was the culprit?), but it is startling and thought-provoking in its somewhat open-ended attitudes towards race and Megan's sexuality.

Judy said...

I thought this was a masterpiece and would like to see it again - although it's a pity that a Swedish actor was cast as General Yen, he does a fine job in the role. Great review of a fine and daring Capra pre-Code - I agree with you that it would have been impossible to make a film like this after the Code was enforced, in particular the dream/nightmare rape sequence which you highlight.

Miguel said...

Judy, the film is available on DVD in the UK as part of a boxset. It was released as a double feature with Golden Boy but I think it's OOP. It was acceptable but I haven't watched my copy in years.