Friday, January 3, 2014

Barbara Doesn't Drink Tea

A young woman arrives in China to marry her childhood sweetheart, only to become swept up in a civil war.  Barbara Stanwyck stars as Megan Davis, who arrived in China with high hopes of a new and happy life, but instead is introduced to the Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), a  grim, but very well done precode film.

The film emphasizes the extreme class differences and violence that are associated with China.  General Yen (Nils Asther) mows down a rickshaw boy with his car, and the local missionaries decry the "savages" that populate China.  We are quickly made aware that there is no understanding between the European community and the Chinese, or between the peasants and their rulers.  Yet the Europeans are busily attempting to convert the Chinese to their religion, and the rulers think nothing of killing prisoners.  Bob Strike, the missionary Megan has come to wed - he has been living in China for years, yet can't speak or read the language.  How can he be working with the Chinese people if he can't speak to them? He, of course, assumes that they will learn HIS language. That assumption proves both ignorant and dangerous, as it sets him up for ridicule (and endangers himself and his fiance), when he accepts a "pass" that he cannot read from General Yen that is nothing but an insult. 

Strike is a very unappealing character.  Though he has not seen his betrothed in three years, he cannot spare time to meet her at the station when she arrives.  When she arrives at his home for her wedding, he still has not arrived.  And when he does come, it is to tell her the wedding must be delayed, as he has to go out to a mission office to retrieve some orphans, who have been caught by the civil war.  Is Strike a good man? Perhaps, but he is one of these individuals who loves mankind, yet has no regard for the individual. He is, in many ways, as careless of the individual as General Yen.  They serve as interesting foils; one supposedly good and caring, the other cruel and selfish.  But in the long-run, they are not much different.

Megan, on the other hand, is more open to the Chinese culture. She is horrified at the death around her - she tries to get help for her injured rickshaw man, she is eager to go with Bob to save the orphans, despite the danger.  She tries to stop the executions that Yen has ordered, and she intervenes with Yen for the life of Ma-Li.  While she is ignorant of Chinese life, she seems to want to learn more.  Though she has come to China to work as a Christian missionary, Megan is willing to bring Ma-Li to the Buddhist Temple, and doesn't try to convert her.  

Megan is not only frightened of her attraction to China, but also of her growing feelings for General Yen - he is a man with an air of danger around him, and she certainly has reason to fear rape and/or murder at his hands.  However, she also becomes fascinated by him, and in a sense, why not - Yen is an attractive, intelligent man.  And he is a man who shows his attraction and interest in her.  He listens to her.  If Megan and Bob were to marry, would the marriage last?  It seems unlikely.

Of course, as with so many early Hollywood films, Yen is played by a Caucasian.  The makeup job is well done as these things go; the DVD of the film contains a short promo film which demonstrates a "before and after" of actor Asther in makeup. It's quite fascinating. 

We do have two wonderful Asian actors in the cast. Toshia Mori plays Ma-Li, and is interesting and attractive as a woman who is as dangerous as Yen. Mori did not have an especially long career (her final film was in 1937), but was the only non-white actor to be honored as a WAMPAS Baby Star.  One assumes that the mores of Hollywood, which forbade Asian women from getting any good roles led to her eventual defection from Hollywood.  She died (in the Bronx) in 1995, at age 83.  The always wonderful (and shamefully underused) Richard Loo appears in a small part as Ma-Li's lover, Captain Li. Loo managed to have an especially long and rich Hollywood career, becoming the go-to villain during the second World War, and continuing with a long television career through 1981. General Yen is only his third film, so it is a genuine pleasure to see him as a young man.  He died in 1983, at age 80.

Walter Connolly, as always, is excellent as the unapologetic scoundrel, Jones.  Though we know that he is as callous and unfeeling towards the peasants as Yen, Connolly is able to create an attractive character.  Perhaps his general disregard of everyone (including the missionaries) makes him more interesting.

Though now highly regarded by fans of pre-code cinema, General Yen did not do well when it opened.  This TCM article discusses some of the problems that it faced - primarily the audience's shock at a white woman having deep feelings for an Asian man.  This is Stanwyck's fourth appearance in a Frank Capra directed film; their work together is always exceptional.  A quick nod is also due to costumers Robert Kalloch and Edward Stevenson. 

We leave you with a clip from the film in which Megan (Barbara Stanwyck) must respond to General Yen's (Nils Asther) advances:

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