Thursday, March 04, 2010

Capra's Bitter Tea

At the 1933 Academy Awards ceremony, Frank Capra experienced what must have been one of the greatest embarrassments of his personal life, let alone career. Nominated that year for “Lady for a Day”, a light comedy adapted from a Damon Runyon story, Capra was sure he would finally win the coveted Best Director award. When Will Rogers, who was hosting the ceremony that evening, announced the best director, he ended his speech with “Come and get it, Frank”. At this point, or so the story goes, Capra leapt to his feet and rushed triumphantly to collect his award, when suddenly he realized his horrible mistake: the “Frank” that Rogers was referring to was Frank Lloyd (nominated that year for “Cavalcade”, a staid, theatrical historical drama from a Noel Coward play about the British Empire at the turn of the century). Capra froze, embarrassed, and returned to his seat.
Capra would win the award the following year, of course, for the “sleeper” hit, “It Happened One Night”, which would go on to become the first film to win the five major Oscars, and one of the biggest hits of the year, much to the surprise of everyone involved. Despite one of the most chaotic production histories ever recorded, the film ended up an effortlessly fun and charming film that forever established the Capra style, and firmly entrenched him as a kind of cinematic observer of the American social landscape during the pre-WWII years.
In the years before his success with the prototypical screwball comedy, Capra had tried his hand at a wide variety of styles. After a stint writing and directing for the comedian Harry Langdon, Capra became the star director at the low-budget Columbia Pictures, ruled over with an iron fist by Harry Cohn. Columbia was hovering just above “Poverty Row” status during the late 20s and early 30s, and Capra’s films were virtually the company’s sole “prestige” product during that time. His “war” trilogy (“Submarine”, “Flight” and “Dirigible”), comedies (“Platinum Blonde”), social message pictures (“American Madness”) and women’s pictures (“The Miracle Worker”) couldn’t have been more different from each other. It was as if Capra wasn’t merely content to turn out a house product, as so many other directors were, but was constantly struggling to find his style.
Surely the most unusual attempt from this early period is his 1933 film, “The Bitter Tea of General Yen”. The story involves the wife of a missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) who accompanies her husband into a war-torn zone of China to rescue some children from an orphanage. Captured by the bandit leader, General Yen (Nils Asther), Stanwyck struggles with her simultaneous attraction and repulsion for the general. When the general symbolically dies in the end, Stanwyck is on her way back to her old life, realizing she will never be the same again. The film is a striking stylistic hodge podge, seeming to owe a lot to the films that Josef von Sternberg was making over at the Paramount lot at the same time. Yet there is still unmistakably something “Capraesque” about the film. (I’ve written on the film’s connection with the later Capra films on Dan Streible’s “Film Historiography” blog, “‘The Bitter Tea of General Yen’ as Capra-corn”).
Watching the film, one has to wonder what on Earth inspired Capra to make it. It’s so unlike anything else in his oeuvre that it’s impossible to watch the film without noting its bizarre mix of approaches that seemed to have been borrowed willy-nilly from a variety of sources. In particular, there is a dream sequence that seems to owe much to German Expressionism, as well as surrealism. In the dream, Stanwyck imagines herself being attacked by the General, done up to look like a weird cross between Fu Manchu and Nosferatu. Another figure, presumably her husband, dashes into the dream wearing a Zorro costume (!), knocking the villain out of the picture (he vibrates and shakes, moving toward a wall, before disappearing in a burst). When the “husband” removes his mask, it is revealed that he is in fact General Yen, thus representing Stanwyck’s confusion and lust for the general.
The sequence is unlike anything in Hollywood cinema of the period. The entire sequence plays as if Capra was just trying to cram in every single stylistic idea he could purloin. Dan Streible referred to the film as “Capra’s art film”, which is an apt description, I think, of what he was trying to achieve with it. In his quest to bag an Academy Award, it was as if he was going to make a picture that pulled out all the stops. The ultimate “Oscar” movie. One that the Academy just couldn’t say “no” to.
In the process, Capra created a labored, self-consciously stylized effort that remains a strange, atypical film in his output. Contemporary audiences seem unaware how to even take the film, often responding with a mix of incredulous laughter and confusion at the film’s racial elements. The film is ultimately a melodrama, but one that operates under serious restrictions due to the interracial relationship of its protagonists.
The following year, Capra would find his style, and in the process would finally find the success he’d craved so badly. While there’s no question that his post-“It Happened One Night” display a maturity of technique and a consistency of directorial style, Capra would never again make a film as perversely strange and fascinating as “The Bitter Tea of General Yen”.

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