This was her fourth film with Frank Capra, who had already directed her in Ladies of Leisure (1930), Miracle Woman (1931) and Forbidden (1932.) (Their fifth and final film together, Meet John Doe, followed in 1941.) It is clear that Capra had a deep affection for the young actress, but how much she reciprocated his feelings in less certain. By the time Bitter Tea was made they were both married to other people, and it is tempting to read a poignant subtext into the film's central theme of forbidden love. Reducing the film to this would do it a great disservice however. Capra, hoping to obtain his first Oscar, strove for high artistic standards and created a world of opulent oriental glamour, with lush sets gorgeously lit and photographed by cinematographer Joseph Walker, whose specially designed patent lenses captured Barbara's face in radiant close-up:
The rest of the film follows events in the general's sumptuous palace over the next few days, a situation that is further complicated by the actions of the general's concubine Mah-Li (played by Japanese actress Toshia Mori). Neither of the female leads was the first choice - originally, Constance Cummings played the part of Megan with Anna May Wong in the role of Mah-Li. Capra too was a late arrival: despite the fine reputation enjoyed by Herbert Brenon for silent movies such as Peter Pan (1924) and Beau Geste (1926), he couldn't work well with Columbia executive Harry Cohn and was dropped from the film in June. The poster below shows the original line-up:
What is intriguing about Bitter Tea is the way in which it puts forward some provocative and subversive ideas at the same time as reinforcing a number of embarrassing racial stereotypes. Both consciously and unwittingly, the film raises a series of fascinating questions about the clash of civilizations, cultural superiority, racial stereotypes, sexual politics, gender and power.
As a final indictment of Megan's Christianity, the document that betrays Yen is disguised as a prayer for forgiveness - her ignorance of Chinese script means that she is blind to the true meaning of the words.
What can the film offer to modern audiences? To be fair, the use of 'yellowface' make-up and negative Chinese stereotypes is bound to jar with many contemporary viewers, but hopefully this should not distract from the sincere efforts made to challenge prejudices about the taboo of interracial romance. Despite its mixed messages, there is no denying the visual pleasure to be found in watching The Bitter Tea of General Yen: thanks to the designs of art director Steven Goosson, Joe Walker's camera work and the costumes of Edward Stevenson and Robert Kalloch, the film looks stunning. Few things in Capra's later work compare with the beautifully-lit, opulent interiors of General Yen's palace, the carefully-orchestrated crowd scenes and the feverish expressionism of that erotic dream. Capra succeeded in making the arty-looking film he wanted, even if it failed to bring him his much-coveted Academy Award. He'd have to wait another two years for that.