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The Bitter Tea of General Yen


The Bitter Tea of
General Yen (1933)

     I have mentioned before how casting westerners to play exotic and foreign roles was prevalent in early movies and fairly disgraceful, and The Bitter Tea of General Yen is another example. At least in this film only the male lead is a false “Chinaman” played by Nils Asther, a silent picture leading man of Denmark origin who played mostly side roles in talking films. He personifies a Chinese warlord who holds an American missionary captive while he tries to win her affection. Barbara Stanwyck plays the woman, who came to China to marry a childhood friend (also American) she had not seen in three years. General Yen rescues her from a mob scene and takes her to his palace.

     As I watched this mediocre flick, I felt as though this plot had been done before (or again, as the case may be), and in fact, it largely reflects Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (and possibly other incarnations, but that is the only version I know). An evil creature forces a woman to live in luxury while he tries to convince her to fall in love with him. She cannot leave and eventually succumbs to amorous feelings. Although Yen is not a beast, he is monstrous in his military tactics — executing lines of prisoners outside the woman’s window one morning.
     (SPOILER [although you shouldn’t care because this movie is lousy]) Unlike the beast in the animated film, Yen cannot magically become a normal human at film’s end. In fact, once Stanwyck’s Megan is offered her freedom (as happens in B&B), she declares in all her Stockholm Syndromed glory that she could never leave him now.  The thought is absurd given this man is a brutal killer and has never really shown himself to be romantically viable. Megan’s feeling seem to be based entirely on a dream she has early in the film where Yen as a Max Schreck-style vampire attacks her only to have another Yen rescue her. Luckily for all involved, Yen opts to permanently free Megan by doing himself in via poisoned tea, hence the title. (End SPOILER)
     The Bitter Tea of General Yen is surprisingly directed by Frank Capra, who gave us such memorable features as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Arsenic and Old Lace. He already had 21 films under his belt, but apparently this picture came early enough in his career that we cannot fault him. He would not make the Best Picture-winning It Happened One Night for another year. I also must make mention of the hilarious movie poster shown above. There is nothing remotely that racy going on at any juncture in The Bitter Tea of General Yen, and I don’t think Stanwyck has ever been that well endowed. Nevertheless, perhaps it convinced audiences to flock to the theater on false pretenses. Surely they were disappointed.
  • The Bitter Tea of General Yen is set for noon ET Dec. 15 on TCM.

2 Responses

  1. I meant to set my timer to record this when it was on recently, but I forgot to. I only wanted to see it since it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, but now I don’t feel too bad for not getting to that one yet.

    • I’m surprised to hear it’s on that list. There wasn’t anything that significant about the movie in my opinion and Stanwyck’s performance was rather weak at times.

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