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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Columbia Puts Bitter Tea In Radio City's Cup

Cultures Clash in The Bitter Tea Of General Yen (1933)

Columbia drank bitter tea for the failure this Frank Capra production was --- $298,000 in domestic rentals back from a reputed million spent in negative cost. Some would say it was an art film gone wrong. Capra admitted having supped in hopes of Bitter Tea yielding a much desired Academy Award, for which he'd not even be nominated that year. There were bad omens from premiering in early 1933 at just-opened Radio City Music Hall, a cathedral other showmen resented for its siphon-off of patronage from established Broadway houses. The Bitter Tea Of General Yen got off to a bad start there, yanked after a poor week and Radio City's inability to cover its house nut. Frank Capra had till now done comedies and actioners that patronage liked --- why poach now in exotic fields of Von Sternberg endeavor? FC thought serious might translate to gained status. He'd go through the rest of a long life placing General Yen among proudest achievements.

It was, and remains, a visual stunner. One modern observer said Bitter Tea's lush settings reminded him of theatre lobbies hosting the film (Radio City's, maybe?). Never before had Capra taken such pain with the look of a show. Like some of Von Sternbergs he evoked, The Bitter Tea Of General Yen can look like a million even in dupe prints. What got Capra and cast in hot water was daring stuff of interracial romancing between Barbara Stanwyck and tendered-as-Chinese Nils Asther (the actor was actually Danish-born and raised in Sweden). The big moment was a dream sequence where they clinch; it's still got punch for flouting what was then taboo, never mind our precode expectations. Trade reviewing called Capra's hand, saying he'd get grief for miscegenation content, and judging by failure of the pic, it's likely he did, at least in part for the Stanwyck-Asther hook-up.

A Very Different General Yen As Envisioned By Columbia's Product Annual For 1932-33

Nils Asther's General Yen may be a best feature of Bitter Tea. He's suave, ruthless, speaks multiple languages, and better attuned to Yank realities than ugly Americans he deals with, one of whom is Walter Connolly, a mercenary delight and one reason why Code police nixed a reissue Columbia sought for the film years later. General Yen's obsession with the Stanwyck character makes sense, or doesn't, according to one's own acceptance of Babs as object of intense desire. How many in 1932, or among today's audience, would give up all for a roll with this actress/character, especially when she's so surly as here toward a frankly more likeable Yen/Asther? Capra would enjoy success, and a coveted Oscar (in fact, bushels of them), for getting back in a comedy groove with It Happened One Night, a truly momentous hit that would establish him as Hollywood's leading director of the 1930's.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The worst thing about the Movie Production Code is that it fostered a completely false picture of life.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Never been able to get through this one. Not my cup of...oh, never mind.

1:02 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

To Reg: Unfortunately, I think that was the whole idea.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Victory Wilson's excellent bio BARBARA STANWYCK, STEEL-TRUE has some good behind the scenes stuff on BITTER TEA, as well as some thoughtful observations on the film itself, from a 21st century vantage point. I find the thing fascinating to look at, so I can't quite agree with Mike C. but I will admit it's one of those films more fun to talk about than to actually watch.

Stanwyck is one of my all time favorites. No, I don't think she was particularly sexy, even as a young woman. Yet, in the middle of many of her films, she suddenly displays a very powerful sex appeal, even as a middle aged woman like her role in the B cheapie JEOPARDY.

Okay. That may sound contradictory... but it sorta makes sense to me. Besides, she was a terrific actress, a great personality.

10:28 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer has some very interesting thoughts about Capra, Stanwyck, and "The Bitter Tea Of General Yen":

Stories set in exotic locales may have interested Capra, in that it was only a few years later that he made "Lost Horizon," another big, sumptuous, and expensive film that was also respected but commercially disappointing. I first became acquainted with it as "Lost Horizon of Shangri-La," the truncated version prepared for a 1942 re-release with about 20 minutes removed from the general release version, which was itself trimmed from the original road show release. Later the Temple University Cinemateque showed something approximating the original version, with the complete sound track mated to various pictorial elements and stills, the latter mostly for scenes taking place in the High Lama's palace. A speech given by the Conway character, in which he railed against his hypocrisy and the racism of the British Empire, was restored in the form of noticeably grainier footage from a 16 mm print. In 1942, this sort of cynicism would not have been well received.

"The Bitter Tea of General Yen," however, might have appealed to him for more personal reasons. It was the third film he made with Barbara Stanwyk, someone he'd been quite infatuated with. If the opportunity to work again with her was tinder for a still smoldering passion, however, there was also an impediment, since he was now married. A Chinese warlord sacrificing himself for a white missionary who rejected him must have resonated strongly with both Capra and Stanwyk, the impropriety of sexual relations between members of different races being a sublimation of the barrier posed by his marriage and the greater gulf of their differences in personal outlook and values. No doubt a melancholy temperament would have regarded the warlord's sacrifice as both the apotheosis and justification of a failed affair, and a source of relief, for having resolved it. However, it may also be an emotional device allowing an indulgence in that very affair without having to consummate it, with the difficult choices that may pose.

1:49 PM  

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