The Bitter Tea of General Yen

Released:  1933

Cast:  Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther, Walter Connolly, Toshia Mori

SUMMARY:  In the late 1920s, China is embroiled in a civil war.  Civilians are fleeing the large cities, like Shanghai, but at least one household is happy:  they are celebrating the imminent wedding of missionary Dr. Robert Strike and his fiancée Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck), who has just arrived in China after three years apart from Bob.  Before the ceremony can be performed though, Bob gets news of a group of orphaned children in need of help.  Bob postpones the wedding, and when Megan insists on accompanying him, both set out for the orphanage.  In order to get through the needed areas, the two visit General Yen (Nils Asther), a Chinese warlord who controls them.  General Yen appears to give them the requested “safe passage” pass, but in reality it mocks Robert’s decision to help orphans instead of get married.  The two take the pass and make it to the orphanage, but the soldiers then steal their car.  Even so, everybody manages to get to the train station, but there both Bob and Megan are knocked unconscious.  When Megan wakes up she is on the private troop train of General Yen.  On his orders, Megan is cared for by his concubine Mah-Li (Toshia Mori), who develops a tentative friendship with Megan.  The train takes everybody to Yen’s summer palace, where Megan is shocked to find that executions are carried out in the courtyard.  She also learns that an American named Jones (Walter Connolly) is working for Yen as a “financial advisor:”  Jones has managed to raise six million dollars for the general, all of which is stored in a boxcar.  However, the general seems to have become preoccupied with Megan:  he assures her that he will arrange a trip back to Shanghai as soon as safety allows, and moves the executions when he learns that they bother her.  For her part, Megan begins having dreams about the general coming to her rescue; she counters these by staying away from the general.  She eventually agrees to dine with him in order to speak to Jones (who she thinks can help her get back to Bob).

However, another issue soon unfolds at dinner:  Mah-Li has been having a secret relationship with one of the general’s soldiers, Captain Li — and she has been passing him secrets about the general, which he has been selling to the other side.  The general sentences Mah-Li to death, but Megan is again horrified by the violence, and personally asks for her pardon.  Yen agrees on the condition that Megan stake her life on Mah-Li’s future honesty and loyalty to him.  Megan agrees, and Mah-Li pledges not to engage in espionage again.  This is a lie:  she continues to pass secrets right under Megan’s unsuspecting nose (she asks Megan to take her to a temple, where she will have a prayer read in Chinese; these prayers are really important names and details, but as Megan does not understand Chinese she does not realize this).  Mah-Li is so skilled at this that the general’s armies are overrun by the enemy, and his six million dollars are taken.  He is left broke and deserted by his men.  General Yen knows that Mah-Li is responsible, but cannot bring himself to follow through on the deal to take Megan’s life as punishment.  Instead, he makes himself a cup of poisoned tea.  Megan finally acknowledges her feelings for the general, and tells him that she would never leave him:  he smiles at her, then drinks the tea.  Jones and Megan eventually get a boat to Shanghai, and Jones tells Megan that she will see the general again in another life.

MY TAKE:  Being as this movie was made in 1933, an interracial relationship was pretty controversial stuff.  This is probably the reason that General Yen was played by a Swedish guy in makeup, rather than an actual Chinese man.  It’s pretty obvious that the guy is not really Chinese, but the rest of the Chinese characters — like Mah-Li and Captain Li — are played by Chinese people.  This makes it a little more tolerable in my book.  This is an early Frank Capra movie, and although it flopped at the time it is now regarded as one of his finest works.  Personally, I disagree, as I thought the chemistry between the two leads was nonexistent.  For a while the movie reminded me of Beauty and the Beast, but the Beast is way more endearing.  The sense I got was that the general was fascinated and maybe a little obsessed with Megan, but that she had absolutely no affection (and little respect) for him.  Apparently I was wrong.  However, how does a woman go from being ready to marry a missionary to wanting to be with a murderous warlord?  She would have to do a 180 in terms of morality.  I did not see the love angle at all, and was disappointed that she chose to stay with him at the end.

RATING:  Boring and unconvincing.


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