“You can always do so much more with mercy than you can with murder.”
A general (Nils Asther) in revolutionary China falls in love with an American missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) he rescues during a street riot.
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Barbara Stanwyck Films
- Cross-Cultural Romance
- Frank Capra Films
- Missionaries and Revivalists
The Bitter Tea of General Yen remains a unique entry in Frank Capra’s early oeuvre. Exhibiting none of the “Capra-corn” that would mark Capra’s later populist films, Bitter Tea is a dreamy, beautifully photographed, provocative tone poem about cross-cultural tensions and inter-racial longing. Danish actor Nils Asther thankfully manages to avoid most stereotypes in his portrayal of the imposing Chinese General Yen, instead infusing his character with charisma and emotional complexity. He exhibits authority and vulnerability in equal measure — indeed, it’s easy to see why Stanwyck’s strong-willed female missionary (Megan) can’t help feeling a deep-seated attraction to him, despite her status as a betrothed woman (watch for her infamous “dream sequence” — haunting evidence of pre-code cinematic sensibility). Stanwyck is luminous in this early role — like Asther, she’s called upon to demonstrate both strength of character and emotional nuance as she contemplates, however subconsciously, a forbidden romance. The entire story takes place within the context of gorgeously baroque sets and lustrous cinematography, adding to the dream-like ambience of Megan and Yen’s tragic “affair”; the film’s ending is foreshadowed by its provocative title.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Nils Asther as General Yen
- Barbara Stanwyck as Megan Davis (nominated by Peary as Best Actress of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book)
- A provocative portrayal of “forbidden” romance
- Stunning sets
- Joseph Walker’s luminous cinematography
Yes, as a unique gem by a famed director.
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)