“Star Of The Month (August 2021)” Featuring Barbara Stanwyck in… The Bitter Tea Of General Yen (1932)

Now that we’ve come around to August, with actress Barbara Stanwyck as our new Star, we can get into her 1932 film The Bitter Tea Of General Yen, also starring Nils Asther.

Coming Up Shorts! with… Pink Of The Litter (1967)

(available on Blu-ray and DVD as part of The Pink Panther Cartoon Collection: Volume 2 (1966-1968) from Kino Lorber)

(Length: 6 minutes, 1 second)

When a policeman catches the Pink Panther littering, the Panther is forced to clean up the town of Littersburg. This one was fun, with most of the humor coming from the Panther’s failed attempts to get rid of the trash. It’s enjoyable, and you certainly can’t help but cheer when the Panther figures out how to get rid of the trash! I don’t think this is the Panther at his absolute best, but it’s certainly one of the better ones, and worth revisiting!

And Now For The Main Feature…

In Shanghai, China, a group of missionaries get together to celebrate the wedding of fellow missionary Dr. Robert Strike (Gavin Gordon) and his childhood sweetheart (who has just arrived in China) Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck). However, the area is rife with civil war, and Robert decides to delay the wedding so that he can help rescue some orphans. Megan quickly volunteers to help him out, and they go to see General Yen (Nils Asther), so that Robert can get a safe passage pass for the area. However, the general writes in Chinese (which Robert still hasn’t learned well), effectively making fun of him for trying to rescue orphans instead of enjoying the company of his future-wife. When Robert and Megan try to get the orphans away, the crowd gets violent, and they are both knocked out. Megan awakes on a train, being cared for by General Yen’s mistress, Mah-Li (Toshia Mori), as they and the general go to his summer palace. When she awakes again at the palace, it is to the sound of gunshots, as the general is having his prisoners shot. She goes to him to protest the brutality, but he tells her that his other option is to let them starve to death, for lack of food that he can give them. General Yen’s financial advisor, Jones (Walter Connolly), lets him know he raised nearly six million dollars (which is currently hidden in a nearby boxcar), and tries to convince the general to send Megan back to avoid trouble (to no avail). After a dream, Megan finds herself falling for the general. However, trouble arises when the general discovers that Mah-Li has been spying on him with the help of one of his men, Captain Li (Richard Loo), and orders Mah-Li to be executed. Megan won’t have it, and the general pushes her to put her beliefs to the test, by taking Mah-Li’s place if she should prove traitorous again. And sadly, Mah-Li does, revealing the location of the general’s money to his enemies. However, in spite of losing everything, the general can’t bring himself to take Megan’s life. Can the two of them be together, or will the general’s misfortunes be the end of him?

The Bitter Tea Of General Yen was based on the 1930 novel of the same name by Grace Zaring Stone. The film was a project that director Frank Capra wanted to do (as he was in search of an Oscar at the time), and he got it when a previous director assigned to the property was fired. It was Capra’s decision to cast actress Barbara Stanwyck in the lead, after having worked with her previously on three films. For the role of the general, he didn’t want a big star made-up to look Chinese, so he went with a lesser-known Swedish actor in Nils Asther. Capra made sure to rehearse the other actors a lot, but not Barbara Stanwyck, as he felt she did better with fewer rehearsals. The film famously was the first to play at Radio City Music Hall, although its engagement there was cut short when it didn’t do good business. As a whole, the film failed at the box office, a fact blamed on the film’s interracial romance, which audiences didn’t care for (and sadly for Capra, the film didn’t even get nominated for an Oscar, either). It’s only been in recent years that the film has received a more positive reception.

So far, I would say that this movie is the earliest Barbara Stanwyck film that I have had the opportunity to see. And her performance in this movie is quite fascinating. Her character starts off the movie as an eager missionary, looking to marry and help her childhood friend (even willing to postpone her wedding to help him out with his work). However, life takes an unexpected turn, as she finds herself dealing with a Chinese general. As her erotic dream about him indicates, she certainly has some racist beliefs about the Chinese, but the general starts to work away at some of them. In the process, he even pushes her on how much her religious convictions are actually worth when put to the test. Of course, the movie’s ending is slightly ambiguous as to what will actually happen to her, but it’s interesting to see how Barbara’s performance even then is worth seeing!

This is a movie I wanted to see as much because it was directed by Frank Capra, and Barbara Stanwyck’s presence certainly didn’t hurt it! I do think that all the performances in this movie worked, as we got to know the various characters. Sure, there is some stereotyping going on, some because of the times (mostly like a white actor portraying a Chinese man), and others on purpose (like the racist image in Megan’s dream that gives way to her erotic feelings about the general). It’s definitely more of an “artsy” type of movie, but I found myself so fascinated by the story being told that I didn’t mind it. It was a nice way to start off celebrating Barbara Stanwyck for the month, with one of her pre-Codes (and I certainly hope I get the chance to see more as time goes on), and I would certainly recommend it!

What’s Old Is A New Release Again (2020) with… The Bitter Tea Of General Yen (1932)

This movie is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Sony Pictures Entertainment. To be fair, the Blu-ray for this movie barely qualifies as a new release for 2020. The movie actually made its Blu-ray debut back on August 1, 2017 (with the exact same transfer). That release was a part of the “Sony Choice Collection” line of MOD Blu-rays. However, a common complaint was that those were BD-Rs, not pressed Blu-rays (and this film ended up being the last one released as part of that line). Since then, Sony paused their MOD releases for a while, and then resumed with a few changes. For one, they were no longer under any special kind of brand, and, for another, they were pressed Blu-rays. Over time, they started re-releasing titles from their “Sony Choice Collection,” except now on pressed Blu-rays (and still utilizing the same transfers), with The Bitter Tea Of General Yen getting its re-release on September 22, 2020. But, enough about that. The transfer is a beautiful thing to behold, with all the detail and the properly cleaned-up picture. Certainly well worth it for that reason alone!

Film Length: 1 hour, 28 minutes

My Rating: 8/10

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List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections

Barbara StanwyckInternes Can’t Take Money (1937)

Walter Connolly – It Happened One Night (1934)

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