#72. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

This one’s hard to talk about because I couldn’t find it streaming anywhere, and I couldn’t find the DVD either, so I ordered a VHS copy from BFE and it wasn’t a very good one. This was the first of probably several movies I’ll have to watch on cassette. The case looked fine, and the cassette itself appeared to be in good condition, but once I started watching it the screen would intermittently get snowy, or this buzzing horizontal white stripe would run down the screen, or all the noise would suddenly just get shrill and incoherent, or mumblesome, or it would cut out altogether.


But I was able to watch and appreciate a good bulk of it, easily three quarters, and what I saw was pretty good. It reminded me of Shanghai Express on account of its charismatic Asian male villain. Here, however, that Asian villain, General Yen, is played by Swedish actor Nils Asther. A squinting white guy. In that respect it reminds me of D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms, where the Chinese hero is played by a squinting white guy too. And Asther does a good job, if you can look past the cringe-inducing optics, lending General Yen an impressive blend of charm and menace.

According to a number of online summaries I’ve had to look at in order to make sense of what was going on in the beginning, where the cassette’s static was at its worst, our hero, Megan (Barbara Stanwyck) is heading off to China to meet with and marry her fiancé, Robert; but they take a detour first, a missionary trip, hoping to rescue some orphans. When my VHS’s image started finally working for me was around the point that they get to China and Megan hits her head in some frenetic street chaos (I think she falls off of a gondola?) and gets rescued/kidnapped by General Yen. She ends up staying at his palace, in lavish digs, while he dips in and out of her bedroom to say some menacing shit, make her uncomfortable. It’s a good show.

Totally forgettable, though, and it’s another of these movies on the List that’s perfectly delightful and cool but, for the life of me, I can’t imagine why it’s up here on this mantle of movies you “must” see. Maybe because it’s directed by Frank Capra, and stars a super-young Barbara Stanwyck (25), and the List wants us to see these two artists’ careers unfold from start to finish. I just don’t know what to say about it. Granted, the quality of my copy was pretty shitty, but The Bitter Tea of General Yen just felt like Shanghai Express with less mood, less style, and while I might prefer Stanwyck to Dietrich I think it showcases lesser acting, thinner characters, and it’s about half as interesting.

I can definitely see why it was so hard to track down.


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