The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra / U.S., 1933):

The old Chinese joke about the patient lady and the roasted ox, mounted by Frank Capra in sumptuous rivalry with Sternberg. A tumultuous crowd framed by a burning temple portal states the Shanghai situation, "there is a civil war, you know," orphans in the crossfire are the crux for the "missionary racket." (A fatuous bishop has a tale of Mongol bandits taking the wrong lessons from the Crucifixion, the camera whip-pans to a servant in inscrutable frontal close-up.) The Puritan from New England (Barbara Stanwyck) makes the acquaintance of the ruthless warlord (Nils Asther) in the rain (his limo runs over her rickshaw driver), she finds herself a reluctant guest in his palace after being separated from her fiancé (Gavin Gordon). "The conquest of a province, the conquest of a woman," the General is an aesthete and a sensualist but his spirited prisoner clings to "the privilege of God," conversion and seduction joust and blur on the way of the downfall. As the American war-profiteer, Walter Connolly oozes amorality from the sidelines: "It's no skin off my nose." A novice's education (cf. Buñuel's Viridiana) and a director's exploration, Capra not out of his element but rather in a sustained state of discovery. Spiritual sublimities and erotic perversities or vice-versa, East and West connect in a composition of moonlight and blossoms ("Have you seen our paintings?") and an astounding dream sequence: The maiden cowers from the Yellow-Peril Nosferatu who turns out to be her devastatingly sexy captor, the taboo kiss dissolves to the whirl of conflicting emotions on Stanwyck's face. The Christian organ and the Buddhist wheel, the traitorous concubine and the shimmering pool, a continuous play of intoxication and poison. Barely a week encompasses it all, yet "you could crowd a lifetime into an hour." Cocteau and Rodgers & Hammerstein learn from it equally, rippling all the way to Ford's last word (7 Women). Cinematography by Joseph Walker. With Toshia Mori, Lucien Littlefield, Richard Loo, Helen Jerome Eddy, and Emmett Corrigan. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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