Friday, November 11, 2011


Film: The Bitter Tea of General Yen
Format: Internet video on laptop.

While I like plenty of movies that are a generation or more older than I am, but there are many things about these films that strike me the wrong way. One of these things is the rather substantial racism present in many films of the era. Often, the racism is blatant; non-whites are portrayed as lazy, treacherous, shifty, evil, cheating, and any number of other derogatory adjectives. A more subtle racism is the casting of white actors in non-white roles. This continued for years. Charlton Heston played a Mexican cop in Touch of Evil, after all. But it still bothers me. So when I learn that Swedish actor Nils Asther plays the title role in The Bitter Tears of General Yen, well, I react badly. Inclined as I am to word play, I might call this the bitter taste of General Yen.

We have a missionary named Bob Strike (Gavin Gordon) working in China. His childhood sweetheart, Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) has arrived in China to marry him. The wedding is to take place immediately, but is postponed when Bob decides he needs to act immediately to rescue orphans trapped in a war zone. Megan goes with him. He gets a pass from bandit leader General Yen (Asther) and heads off, but runs into trouble. His car is stolen by one army or another, and the pair run off with the children, trying to find rickshaws. Both Bob and Megan are knocked unconscious.

Megan is rescued by General Yen, who she met on her arrival; Yen’s car sideswiped her rickshaw, injuring her driver. She goes back to his rather palatial estate with him, at first as a sort of lost lamb, then as a sort of captive, and finally as something of a spoil of war. See, back in the “civilized” world, everyone things Megan is dead. And there’s the fact that Yen is quickly becoming infatuated with the pretty young American.

We meet a few other people as well. First is Jones (Walter Connolly), Yens’ financial advisor. Also important are Mah-Li (Toshia Mori), Yen’s concubine, and Captain Li (Richard Loo), one of his military commanders. It’s evident that Mah-Li and Captain Li have something going on between them. It’s also refreshing to see these roles actually played by Asian actors, even if Toshia Mori is actually Japanese, and is thus evidence of the “they all look alike” stereotype.

Regardless, the real controversial part of this film happens a touch before the middle. It’s not the implied nudity of Stanwyck in the bathing sequence, but the dream sequence before this. She falls asleep and imagines a gross stereotype of Yen breaking into her room to ravage her—in this he looks very much like a demon or the traditional Chinese hopping vampire. In a comic book sequence of her dream, a masked man breaks jumps in through her window and fights off the terrible invader. He then removes his mask and reveals not Bob Strike, but a much more genteel and civilized version of Yen, who she finds rather appealing.

Ah, miscegenation. That was the problem with the film back in the ‘30s. It was expected that anyone and everyone would be attracted to a pretty, young white woman. After all, even King Kong was fatally attracted to Faye Wray. The issue was that pure, virginal, all-American and missionary (and thus Christian) Megan Davis was in turn attracted to General Yen. That was something that middle America (and quite a bit of the coasts as well) were simply not ready to see. It didn’t matter that these were actors, nor did it matter that underneath the makeup General Yen was just as white as Barbara Stanwyck. The fact that the character could see someone non-white as desirable was, in a word, problematic.

However this (and the casting of the lovely, lovely Barbara Stanwyck) is really one of the few things to make this film interesting. It is otherwise a fairly standard story of forbidden romance during a time of war, the sort of thing that crops up all the time in various guises at least once a year. I suppose it’s worth adding that the war scenes are really well filmed and pretty intense, especially for the time.

The film ends strangely, and might well be evidence of a bit more racism against the Chinese. The only Asian who proves to be true to anything like his or her word is the one played by the white actor. I suppose that shouldn’t be too much of a shock, really. The “sneaky Oriental” stereotype ran pretty deep.

A strange film, but Barbara Stanwyck cures a lot of ills. It says a lot that my grandparents could have (and frankly may have) seen this film in the theater when it was new. My grandfather was born in 1910, and his wife a few years later. While this film was banned in any number of places, it may well have played in Des Moines. And they may well have been shocked by the romance between East and West as depicted. And I, two generations later, see this most controversial thing as a non-issue. There’s still a distance to go, but we’ve come a long way.

Why to watch The Bitter Tea of General Yen: While still racist, less racist than you might expect.
Why not to watch: Because the Chinese General Yen is played by a guy from Sweden.


  1. I had the same feeling about "Bitter Tea". I expected it to be a whole lot worse. Turned out to be a pretty good story with decent acting - despite a Chinese General "played by a guy from Sweden" :)

  2. Nothing against Sweden. I'd have been just as angry if the actor had been from Ontario or Mobile.

    This hasn't gone away by any stretch. The live-action remake of Akira is loaded with white actors who (at least as far as I can tell) will still have Japanese names like Tetsuo and Kaneda.

  3. Nope, it is much much worse that it is a guy from Sweden...

  4. I wish I could walk into a Chinese restaurant and order some Bitter Tea of General Yen to go along with my order of General Tso's chicken. That would be so cool!

    I've been wanting to see The Bitter Tea of General Yen for a while. It's on my "Must-See Barbara Stanwyck Movies" list, my "Acclaimed 1933 Movies" list and, of course, The List. Also, I wanted to see it anyway independently of it being on any list. So I was happy when it showed up on the THIS TV schedule last week.

    I was mesmerized. Hollywood made a lot of movies in the 1930s about how awful China was, from high-budget prestige projects like The Good Earth to low-budget thrillers like West of Shanghai with Boris Karloff as General Fang. I don't think I've ever seen one that's as close to perfect as The Bitter Tea of General Yen.

    I don't think I ever would have guessed that it was directed by Frank Capra! General Yen should have kidnapped Chiang Kai-Shek (played by Claude Rains) and Mao Zedong (Edward Arnold), taken them to the Forbidden City and, after an impassioned speech, forced them to reconcile their differences for the good of China.

    No. Not really.

    I enjoyed it immensely, especially Barbara Stanwyck, of course, with a lot of great support from Nils Asther, Gavin Gordon and Toshia Mori.

    And that ending! I'm not going to give it away for those who haven't seen it, but those last few minutes at the palace, and then the very last scene where Jones is talking and Barbara doesn't say a thing because you can see EVERYTHING in her face and her body language, that ending just blew me away.

    The next morning I saw Nightmare Alley. Those two films back-to-back were just so much near-perfect cinema that I had several days where nothing was good enough. I finally ended the malaise with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. It's hilarious.

    1. This is a film that probably couldn't be remade easily today because the main provocative issue here is such a nothing in modern society. It would, at the very least, need to be significantly changed, or clearly made as a period piece.

      There's a lot to like here, starting, of course, with the divine Barbara, who is always worth watching.

  5. It should be mentioned that Nils Asther (That Swedish guy) only at the time got parts where his accent wasn't a problem (also, he was quite indiscreet with his homosexuality, which was a problem for some of the bosses at the studios).

    However, i agree with the post. It looks ridiculous. I learned that some filmmakers themselves and some actors was much more liberal than this, but was forced to adopt to the reality of the politicians and the film studios back then (think of some of the pre-code films).

    On a related note, another Swede, Warner Oland (Johan Verner Ölund), played Charlie Chan numerous of times and also Fu Manchu and in Shanghai Express with Anna May Wong. But Ölund was quite interested in Chinese culture, and while he claimed both Mongolian and Chinese ancestry (not true however) at some times. He studied Mandarin hard and also Chinese Calligraphy, so the biggest problem was in that case the studios.

    1. Sadly, it's a problem that's still with us. The whitewashing of roles may well always be with us to some extent.

      Still, it's refreshing that something seen as controversial enough to ban a film in one generation is something we routinely see in advertising and television sitcoms today as something not even really worth commenting on.