With miscegenation their common theme, The Cheat (1931) has been coupled with Frank Capra's The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) at Elliot Lavine's "Hollywood Before the Code: Nasty-Ass Films For a Nasty-Ass World!", reeling at the Roxie Theater on Sunday, March 4 in a B&W 35mm Studio Archive Print. "An exotically adventurous film from a most unexpected director!" Lavine exclaims, "A beautiful American missionary is, through fate, thrown into a romantic interlude with a charismatic Chinese warlord. Breaking many Hollywood taboos—mainly the issue of miscegenation and, in this case sprinkled liberally with simmering displays of passion—Bitter Tea is a primal slice of pre-code erotica, a film that will amaze you from start to finish!"
In his autobiography The Name Above the Title (1971, The Macmillan Company), Frank Capra admitted it was because he had to get an Oscar® that he decided to film The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Secretly, he had thought his previous film American Madness (1932) would score him the statuette and—when he expressed his disappointment to Harry Cohn—Cohn told him, "Forget it. You ain't got a Chinaman's chance. They only vote for that arty junk." "Okay," Capra decided, "If the Academy voted only for arty films (not true), I would make the artiest film they ever saw—about miscegenation! That ought to stir up some arty votes." (Supra, p. 140)
For Capra it was easy to consider Barbara Stanwyck for the role of the young American missionary Megan Davis, who he envisioned as "externally frigid but internally burning with her 'call.' " It was General Yen who proved a casting problem. "I knew what I did not want," Capra wrote, "a well-known star made up as an Oriental. I looked for a tall, overpowering, real Chinese. But there were no tall Chinese in casting directories, or even in laundries; most Chinese-Americans were short Cantonese. After many interviews we settled on a not-too-well-known Swedish actor, Nils Asther. He was tall, blue-eyed, handsome; spoke with a slightly pedantic 'book' accent; his impressive face promised the serenity and mystery of a centuries-old culture.
"But how could we make a Swede look Oriental? His blue eyes would photograph steel-gray in black-and-white film. That was an unusual plus. But what about the slant of his eyes? The prevailing method of 'changing' Caucasian eyes into Oriental ones was to stretch and tape the outer ends of the eyes towards the ears, fooling practically nobody. Besides which the actors looked more hideous than Oriental. There must be a better, more natural way. There was.
"Closely studying Chinese features, I noticed two major differences between Oriental and Caucasian eyes: One, the upper Oriental eyelid is smooth and almost round, lacking the crease, or fold, of the Caucasian eyelid; and, two, Oriental eyelashes are much shorter than Western eyelashes. We followed up the two clues: The make-up man covered Nils Asther's upper eyelids with smooth, round, false 'skins,' and clipped his eyelashes to one-third their natural length. Without adding any other make-up we made photographic tests of Asther's face. On the screen he looked strange—unfathomable. The stiff, upper eyelids kept his eyes in a permanent half-closed position. Of a certain he was not a Caucasian—and his face looked natural, uncontorted! Bedecked in Mandarin costumes, and a fez-like, black, tall skullcap for added height, Asther could pass for an awe-inspiring warlord. I added one final touch: an eccentric walk—long slow strides with both his long arms moving back and forth together—in parallel—with each stride. By keeping the camera low to accentuate height, Nils Asther became General Yen—ruthless, cultured, mysterious, and devastatingly attractive."
But not without incident. "In clipping Nils Asther's eyelashes, we forgot that long eyelashes protected Caucasian eyes against harsh light. The first day we exposed him to the glare of studio sun arcs he came down with the worst case of eyeburn (klieg eyes) studio doctors had ever seen. He was ordered to remain locked up in a dark dressing room between shots, and to wear dark, red glasses during rehearsals. Only during actual photography did we expose his unprotected eyes to the sun or studio lamps. Despite those precautions, Asther suffered constant acute pain throughout the whole picture. Fearing for his eyesight, doctors attended him night and day, administering poultices, eyedrops, and pain killers. Yet the gallant Swede gave a performance that one has to call an elegant tour de force." (Supra, pp. 141-142)
"The result of these labors, not surprisingly," wrote David Sterritt for his Turner Classic Movie essay, "is a Hollywood stereotype." Less dismissive and, perhaps, my favorite write-up on The Bitter Tea of General Yen is Kevin Lee's for Senses of Cinema: "Back then, audiences could not accept a film that showed a Chinese man and a white woman achieving unprecedented levels of intimacy. Today, audiences may regard the white characters' stereotypical denunciations of Chinese culture, or the interracial love story with the Chinese romantic lead played by a Swedish actor in yellowface makeup, with either camp irreverence or a queasy sense of shame for Hollywood's racist legacy. It is a film orphaned between historical and cultural norms." Veined with poignant subjectivity, Lee qualified: "I think the film's failure to find a home within a prevailing social convention was what made me fall in love with it. ... This is what I find to be of such value in The Bitter Tea of General Yen; that it risks offence for the sake of constructing a dialogue, one fraught with so many perils in the realms of politics, religion, cultures and sex, that it would not be worth it if it weren't necessary. Despite the social prejudices that informed its production, it dared to carve out a space where two people might live not as Chinese and American, heathen and Christian, man and woman, but just 'you and me'—while reckoning soberly with the impossibility of achieving such a space. Whatever faults it may have, its daring puts contemporary films of similar subject matter to shame."
Though The Bitter Tea of General Yen once again failed to secure Capra his desired Oscar®—"Damn those Academy voters! Couldn't they recognize a work of art when they saw one?"—it did bear the honor of being the first film to open the Radio City Music Hall in January 1933, even though scandalized audiences convinced the Hall to shorten the film's scheduled two-week run to eight days. The theme of miscegenation had been "made palatable and attractive as a natural outcome of passions molded by tumultuous times" (Wikipedia) and that proved unacceptable to the prejudices of the time, which contributed to the film's dubious distinction of being one of only two Capra films to lose money at the box office. As Barbara Stanwyck phrased it, "The women's clubs came out very strongly against it, because the white woman was in love with the yellow man and kissed his hand. So what! I was so shocked [by the reaction]. It never occurred to me, and I don't think it occurred to Mr. Capra when we were doing it" (quoted in Joseph McBride, The Catastrophe of Success, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1992, p. 281).