The Bitter Tea Of General Yen (1933)
Proving the case that yellowface is the undoing of many a great director, Frank Capra (It’s A Wonderful Life amongst countless other outstanding films) comes a cropper with this unwittingly (by all accounts) brave and ambitious tale of inter-racial sexual tension between a young American missionary and a man in ludicrous looking make-up during the Chinese Civil War. The acclaimed critic Derek Malcolm named this one of his hundred best films in The Century of Films but, while impressively mounted and with a compelling premise, the film lumbers somewhat, despite its relatively brief running time, and is IMHO undone entirely by the central casting.
A flop on first release, the film’s female star, Barbara Stanwyck, blamed its poor showing on “racist blacklash”. McBride quotes her as saying, “The women’s clubs came out very strongly against it….I was so shocked. [Such a reaction] never occurred to me, and I don’t think it occurred to Mr. Capra when we were doing it.” The generally sympathetic portrayal of miscegenation proving particularly unpalatable at the time. The film’s sexuality is palpably conveyed, with Stanwyck appearing in several quite revealing (for the time) costumes and in one scene dreaming she succumbs to Yen, who she first imagines as a Fu Manchu-type rapist with long tapering nailes, but who then melts into a gentle, courtly suitor. The New York Times described the film as “barely plausible”.
The film is notable for featuring genuine East Asians, most notably Japanese actress Toshia Mori, who features strongly throughout as the treacherous concubine Mah-Li , Time magazine describing her as a “a sloe-eyed Japanese girl” but praising her performance as “the most noteworthy“ of the film’s female performers. As her partner in duplicity Chinese-American cinema mainstay Richard Loo is also given reasonable screen-time.
Yet, proving once again Western media’s curious antipathy towards strong and dominant East Asian male figures, Nils Asther gives one of the famous yellowface performances of all time. Smiling serenely beneath make-up that looks like Botox gone wrong, Asther appears to be attempting some sort of “Oriental” accent as the film plays out King & I style tropes of “civilised white woman and exotically suave brute with a tender side”. Asther (along with Myrna Loy and Warner Oland) is one of several Swedes to have “yellowed up” and proves that, along with Germans Luise Rainer and Curt Jurgens, dusky North Europeans were often Hollywood’s yellowface actors of choice.
There are several scenes where Asther appears to be talking some strange gibberish that I utterly failed to recognise as any Chinese language I’ve ever heard and his character seems to have been constructed around all-purpose Eastern clichés of vaguely sinister inscrutability and stoic “ honour” with his eventual suicide method (the “bitter tea” of the title) obviously designed to arouse lurid fascination.
My favourite scene is the one where General Yen is shown to have some human consideration as he yells at his troops who are busily assassinating captured enemies right outside Stanwyck’s bedroom, thereby disturbing poor old Babs’ sleep, to go and do their grisly business elsewhere. A gentleman and a yellowface for sure.
Our next Yellowface Film Review will follow shortly. Meantime don’t forget to book your tickets for The Fu Manchu Complex http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex on now until October 19th