Bitter Tea of General Yen, The (1933): Unusual Frank Capra Film with Sensuous Stanwyck

This Frank Capra-directed film was chosen as the first attraction at the newly open Radio City Music Hall in New York City.

One of the oddest, least characteristic movies of Frank Capra, made before he established himself as the most influential director of the Depression era, winning no less than three Oscars as Best Director (in 1934, 1936, and 1938).

Barbara Stanwyck stars as Megan Davis, the fiancee of an American missionary, Dr. Robert Strike, (Gavin Gordon), who is sent to spread the good word in China.

During a military revolution, the couple inadvertently wanders into forbidden territory while trying to help a group of orphans escape. They are forcibly detained by the warlord General Yen (played by Swedish actor Nils Ashter), who relies upon the financial advice of drunken American expatriate, Jones (Walter Connolly).

Yen is overcome with desire at the sight of Megan. Though initially repulsed by his attentions, Megan finds herself drawn by his charisma. When all but Jones desert Yen, Megan offers to stay behind with the General. Fearing he will never be able to attain the woman he loves, General Yen commits suicide by drinking poisoned tea rather than put her in harm’s way.

One of the most memorable and racy scenes depicts Megan’s fevered dreams, in which she imagines Yen as a Fu Manchu-type rapist, who then melts into a gentle and courtly suitor.

Stanwyck is extremely sensual, and in moments downright dazzling. Comparisons were made between this pr-Production Code picture with the famously exotic and sensual films of Josef von Sternberg with Marlene Dietrich, a style dropped by Capra later in the decade.

The Bitter Tea of General Yen was a box office failure, due to its miscegenation theme and strange plot, though the ambience is never less than captivating.


Running time: 89 minutes.

Directed by Frank Capra

Released in theaters: January 3, 1933

DVD: September 1, 1993

Columbia Pictures

End Note:

I’m grateful to TCM for showing the film on March 13, 2019, enabling me to refresh my notes for a film I first saw decades ago.