Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The General and I, But Why?

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)
Directed by Frank Capra
Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther, Walter Connolly
Grade: C

They say everyone loves a badboy. The danger. The excitement. I won't disagree. But Barbara Stanwyck's Megan, an American missionary embroiled in China's brutal civil war, has a lot to answer for her romantic tendencies. Beginning with the proposition of her impending marriage to Doctor and fellow missionary Robert Strife there's little strife to be seen in their relationship, but as they rush to the aid of a bunch of orphans they're separated, and after fainting Megan is transported to the palace of the morally-questionable General Yen, where she's kept against her will.

Nils Ather's Yen is an undeniable presence, and an intimidating one at that. His glare is potent, demeaning, and if the long-term reaction of Megan is anything to go by, a bewitching one as well. The film wastes no time in setting up its stall. This man is both brutal executioner and callous imprisoner, and clearly has a narrow knowledge of women, which altogether makes for a tumultuous relationship with our fleety forward-thinking heroine.

It's a similar premise to The King and I but much darker, and politically rather negative in truth, as Megan learns to respect and dare I say, love, a man that was so irreperably condemned in the first act. It would be perhaps easier to comprehend this evidently drastic about-turn had the film been able to detail their changing attitudes towards each other through more thoughtful means, instead opting to do this through the betrayal of the General's slave girl, a plot device that itself re-enforces much of the maligned political ideology of the General himself: women/liberalism as overly-caring, indecisive and weak, and men/imperialism as wise, strong, and a ruthless necessity.

The lasting memory of The Bitter Tea has to be in its finale, which details the success (or lack thereof) of the General himself. His downfall, at the fate of two women, has both re-percussions for himself and for Megan. While it would be fair to say that the elements regarding the civil war (token to say the least) are culturally all rather disinteresting, their relationship is not, but the finale only really adds to the confusion surrounding what they feel for each other and why. While her American lover waits in the wings Megan grieves for a man she's known but a week, and I couldn't begin to tell you what it is about him she'll miss.

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