An odd duck to be sure, Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen is substantially darker than the other Capra films I’ve seen, with a Chinese civil war, gunfire aplenty, and firing squads serving as the backdrop for a love story that never really comes together. There’s plenty to admire here: Capra utilizes fade-ins very creatively to mark the passage of short bursts of time, and Barbara Stanwyck is excellent as Megan Davis, a missionary who travels to Shanghai to visit an orphanage—and to marry her fiancé, fellow humanitarian Robert Strike—and gets thrust in the middle of chaos, which leads to her imprisonment in the vast palace of Sanshô the Bailiff-esque warlord General Yen (Nils Asther). The clashing of cultures and ways of life is interestingly portrayed, and our current differences of opinion with China about what’s right indicates that not much has changed. But as the story evolves, it becomes increasingly difficult to swallow Megan’s conflicted emotions towards the cruel, if coldly dignified, General Yen: sure, she might be happy that he heeds her advice to spare the treacherous Mah-Li (Toshia Mori)—and ashamed that her instincts turned out to be incorrect in this instance—but it’s impossible to believe that an engaged, seemingly-in-love American bleeding-heart could develop genuine emotions for a diabolical character such as General Yen (even his eyebrows and mustache scream Devil). That the entire thing takes place in less than a week makes the entire affair more ridiculous: I know that’s fairly standard for the era, and can hold up in some cases, but the sheer extremity of the circumstances here severely hamstrings The Bitter Tea of General Yen. Still, while it’s no It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s pretty cool to see Capra attempt to tackle such a somber setting, and he manages to produce a decent, if severely flawed, film from it.

55/100