Thursday, November 24, 2011

Sleep Makes a Long Journey Short

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)
directed by Frank Capra
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on VHS from Carnegie Library

Hopefully this wraps up my inadvertent series on racial intolerance, since I don't think I have it in me to forgive another Swede. This time it's Nils Asther, technically a Dane, beneath the offensive makeup, but at least Barbara Stanwyck is beside him, just the way she was. Nevermind that this was considered an unusual (and poorly received) effort at exploring interracial relationships in a major Hollywood production. Mostly it's lines like this: "That's why China is 2,000 years behind the times!"

The screenplay takes a few stabs at Christian hypocrisy, and Capra is quick to condemn the prevalent expatriate attitudes towards Asia. As fiancée to a missionary, Stanwyck's Megan Davis gets more than one opportunity to join in on the condescension, but opts for female solidarity with the general's mistress instead. It costs them both, and the general, too, but by then the remaining Americans are more or less out of the picture. Babs looks beautiful with her hair out of her face, smoking a cigarette in the humid night air.

You've already guessed that I liked it best for atmosphere, and a paper moon above a pagoda's silhouette. Megan's first dream as a captive is a feverish assault by an Asian Nosferatu that melts into Yen dressed as Green Hornet three years before that character's creation. Her fears mellow with time and exposure, and the last few minutes are touching because they embrace a ceremony that is executed wordlessly. With a breeze in the rigging and one more cigarette between her fingers, Stanwyck says nothing and sails away.