Words cannot express how excited I am to watch the 1930s interpretation of an interracial relationship where the Chinese character is played by a Swedish man in yellowface.
That's right, gentle readers. The actor who plays General Yen, a Chinese military leader, is this man:
Meet Nils Asther, a Danish-born Swedish actor who is not only not Chinese, but is in fact aggressively Caucasian.
In this film, China is invaded by everyone's worst nightmare: white American missionaries hell bent on converting the populace to Christianity while simultaneously shaming them for obstinately refusing to conform to Western standards of conduct.
Megan (played by a surprisingly innocent Barbara Stanwyck) has just arrived in China to be reunited with her fiance, a missionary that she hasn't seen in a few years. You can already see the writing on the wall that this relationship is not going to work out. Especially since the first thing he does is postpone their wedding so he can run off and do some good deeds involving orphans and a bunch of nuns. This guy is so vanilla and tediously good that you're really just counting the seconds until Megan can be with someone who has a little fire.
Luckily for all of us, that happens fairly early on in the film. While Megan is out rescuing orphans with her fiance, they get caught in the middle of a skirmish, Megan suffers a concussion, and they are separated. When she wakes up, she's on board General Yen's private train, and despite the fact that she's understandably concerned about her predicament and scared, the sparks they are a flying.
Now, it goes without saying that their relationship is never anything more than implied. This is 1933, after all, 34 years before whites and Asians were legally able to be married in some parts of the South.
But what's interesting about this film, and I can't believe that I'm saying this, is that it's actually not as horribly offensive movie as I thought it would be. Besides the yellowface, of course. But given the time period, Hollywood was never going to cast an Asian in a leading man role. Hell, Hollywood still doesn't like casting Asians in starring roles unless they happen to involve martial arts. Name five Western movies that star an Asian man as a romantic lead. That's what I thought.
While some of the white characters (judgmental missionaries, surprise surprise) refer to the Chinese and General Yen in particular as barbaric, the film doesn't go out of its way to depict him in that way. He comes off as a shrewd and calculating military man who, yes, is a little brutish, but no more so than his Caucasian counterpart might have been.
But although the romance in this film is deliberately skirted around because of the climate of the time, it is a pre-Code film, so they are able to get away with more than they would have a mere five or ten years later. For example, Megan has a sexy dream that pits the barbaric side of General Yen against his more civilized nature, and she is crazy into it. Also, probably super high on opium. It's implied.
Over the course of the movie, Megan begins to understand Yen better, and develops genuine affection for him. If this was a different film in a different time, there would have been more demonstrable love between the two, but we'll have to settle for longing glances and a vaguely Romeo and Juliet ending.
Seeing The Bitter Tea of General Yen as a modern viewer, there are dozens of politically incorrect moments that we can easily pick apart. That's definitely an essay for another time. For me, I was just impressed that it also had some racially sensitive moments that were downright progressive for its time. (Except for the yellowface. Even if I could defend it, I don't think I want to.)
Barbara Stanwyck is a gem as always, but the big surprise here is Nils Asther. A silent actor who always struggled to find good roles once the sound era began, he does a fantastic job of bringing to life a vividly real character despite having the unenviable task of (and I think I've mentioned this already) being a Swedish man playing a Chinese warlord. This is by far Frank Capra's most out of left field production, all sensuality and moral ambiguity where he normally places schmaltz and good Christian values. Overall, it's well-paced and worth watching if you can place it in its proper historical context.