One of my “Complete The Series” reading challenges this year is the Vintage Movie Classics: Novels That Inspired Great Films series. I’ve decided to read each book and then watch the movie based on it, and review both in the same post (which may result in some very long posts, I admit). Here’s the first entry:
TITLE: The Bitter Tea of General Yen
AUTHOR: Grace Zaring Stone
195 pages, Vintage Movie Classics, ISBN 9780804170864
PREMISE: (back cover copy) The groundbreaking novel that was the basis for Frank Capra’s strange, shocking drama starring Barbara Stanwyck and Nils Asther.
Traveling to Shanghai to marry her medical missionary fiancé, the beautiful Megan Davis finds herself caught in the toils of civil war between Republican and Communist forces. Determined to save the inhabitants of an orphanage in a Communist-occupied city nearby, Megan joins a nighttime rescue mission that ends up under attack by a mob. She avoids death only thanks to the intervention of General Yen, who brings her to his palace, where they come to form an unlikely trust and companionship in one another. As the political climate sours and violence outside the palace walls escalates, the motives behind various associates of the General are called into suspicion, leading to an unexpected and irreparable betrayal.
Originally published in 1930, this absorbing novel of war-torn China was adapted into a film in 1933.
With a new foreword by Victoria Wilson.
MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars
MY THOUGHTS: There is no doubt Grace Zaring Stone rights with a smooth, effective economy of words and an eye towards the poetic when it comes to describing her characters’ surroundings. There are lots of beautifully written passages throughout the book and one can see why when it was published in 1930 it captivated a larger readership’s attention. Despite the beauty of the prose and depth of character for the two leads (Megan Davis and General Yen), I struggled with the book’s very obvious Colonial “Christian vs. Heathen” attitude.
Victoria Wilson’s introduction discusses Zaring Stone’s intent to take “a white woman of good standing out of her safe milieu, putting her into a wild, exotic setting … where most (white) men would dare not venture.” The author certainly accomplishes this. Megan has barely arrived in China when she narrowly avoids death (or possible kidnapping) in the midst of a mob. General Yen saves her, and for the rest of the book Megan’s assumed comfortable position as White Savior’s Wife is called into question at every turn. It’s very obvious that only the attentions of General Yen are keeping her from death (or a fate-worse-than). But Megan’s “safe” assumptions about whether the Christian way is better than, or even right for, the Chinese who surround her are never really in danger of being challenged. She rebuffs every counterpoint the well-educated, English-speaking General Yen fields. Several times he calls her on her wish to change him to be more like the men she’s grown up with and learned about. Each time, she verbally denies it but her actions speak louder. (And this “we’re better than them” mindset is not limited to Megan; all of the non-Chinese characters express it, even the supposedly most-Christian of them; people like Doctor Strike may admire much about Chinese culture in general and about General Yen in particular, but they still think Christianity is more worthy.)
Ultimately, one of my problems with the book is that I don’t feel Megan grows at all from her experience. In the final pages, she admires General Yen’s nobility and willingness to die for what he believes is right, but she remains just as convinced as she was at the beginning that the Christian way is the best (perhaps only) way. She never quite says it, but there’s an undercurrent that she still believes if the General had just listened to her, things might have turned out differently. Which just drives home the characters’ attitudes that these in-fighting locals (remember, this is the Chinese Civil War, communists versus warlords), no matter how much great art they may make, are still savages. All of the Megan/Yen one-on-one scenes are electric battles of will and culture, and they are the most interesting scenes in the book.
I may not agree with her stance and her lack of growth, but there’s no denying Megan Davis is a strong character, one who spent a short time pretending to be a retiring wall-flower back in America before becoming engaged to a missionary in China whom she’d grown up with. She bucks the expectations that she’ll be a quiet, dutiful missionary’s wife by agreeing to charge into embattled territory to rescue children and staff from an orphanage with the older Doctor Strike. She’s the most well-developed female in the book, and none of the other female cast come close. Yen’s young concubine Mah-Li comes close to being as well-developed, although it’s more subtly done. She’s a complicated character: raised in one of Doctor Strike’s orphanages, now the mistress of a famous warlord but in love with one of that warlord’s aides – and she’s possibly a spy for the opposing Chinese forces. One of the questions never quite answered about Mah-Li is whether she betrays Yen simply out of love for Captain Li or if she’d have betrayed him eventually even without Li’s love and influence. (I also have to wonder how much Li really love Mah-Li, as opposed to how much he’s leading her on to use her for revenge against the General.) The only other notable female character is Mrs. Jackson, the British woman in whose house Megan is staying at the start of the novel. Mrs. Jackson is the very stereotype of the condescending “Great White Hope” matriarch.
General Yen is of course well-developed as the male lead: a figure the reader is immediately intrigued with thanks to Megan’s first unnamed encounter with him after a car accident she witnesses as much as thanks to the glowing description provided by Doctor Strike. Strike may no longer be on the General’s good side, but that doesn’t stop the good doctor from admiring him. Yen is cultured, European-educated, full of charisma and strong opinions about right and wrong, loyalty and tradition, East versus West. He is the perfect foil for Megan, but in the end he is just as headstrong that his way is the only right way. His hubris absolutely would have led to his downfall whether Megan had come into his life or not. Again, the other male characters don’t come close to being as well-rounded. Captain Li, suffering aide and hostage to the General’s power, barely registers as more than a plot device; Megan’s fiancée is notable only for his total absence from the action; Mr. Jackson is a sad-sack whiner; and Doctor Strike is a stock mentor-figure whose presence really only serves to set up Megan’s expectations of General Yen. The only other remotely well-developed character is Yen’s American accountant Mister Schultz. Schultz is a manipulator, greedy and selfish and prone to drunken ramblings that cause problems for the other characters. If any character in the book has a redemption arc, though, it’s Schultz. He’s the only character I think comes out having learned something and surviving to maybe implement it.
Overall, I’d say the very Colonial tone of the book and the lack of character growth for either of the two leads puts this one at a three-star rating: I liked it, but didn’t love it, and I didn’t immediately feel like I need to go out and read more of Zaring Stonee’s work (commenters are free to tell me if they think I might enjoy any of her other books and why, of course).
TITLE: The Bitter Tea of General Yen
DIRECTOR: Frank Capra
CAST: Barbara Stanwyck (as Megan), Nils Asther (General Yen), Walter Connolly (Jones), Toshia Mori (Mah-Li)
88 minutes, black and white, Columbia Pictures
PREMISE: (dvd cover copy) At the height of the Chinese Civil War, American missionary Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity) arrives in Shanghai to marry another missionary, Robert Strike (Gavin Gordon, The Bride of Frankenstein). As soon as she arrives, however, the couple must save a group of orphans from a fire. Injured and separated from her fiancé, Megan is rescued and taken to the home of General Yen (Nils Asther, Our Dancing Daughters). While Megan and the General grow closer, one of the general’s concubines seems to be secretly working for Yen’s enemies. Directed by the legendary Frank Capra (It’s A Wonderful Life), The Bitter Tea of General Yen is a provocative romantic drama.
MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars
MY THOUGHTS: I think the description above indicates clearly the first thing about this adaptation that Capra got wrong: the introduction of a romantic storyline between Megan and General Yen. There wasn’t even a hint of an undertone of a romantic spark between the characters in the book – grudging respect, full-on aggravation, the potential for a friendship were all there, but romance definitely wasn’t. It casts the story in a completely different light.
Barbara Stanwyck is, as usual, terrific in the lead role. Her turns from naively enthusiastic wife to staunch defender of womanhood to conflicted potential lover are all believable. The Megan of the movie grows as a person a bit more than the Megan of the book, and that’s mostly on Stanwyck’s portrayal rather than anything overtly in the script. (Although the dream she has, in which Yen rescues her from what appears to be a Chinese vampire, might be a bit too on-the-nose as a turning point in her attitude. I could be wrong, but I think Nils Asther played both the General and the vampire.)
Setting aside the era’s penchant for casting white men as Asians, Nils Asther’s performance as General Yen is a study in predatory behavior and what we’d now call “gaslighting.” From the very start, Yen’s gaze is caught leering over Stanwyck; in a departure from the book, he never informs Megan’s fiancée and friends that she is in fact still alive (in fact, he revels in the fact that they think she’s dead), and every conversation they have is an attempt to get her into bed by making her question everything she knows. He evens admits at one point that her missionary zeal makes him both laugh and intrigues him. The strong-willed white woman is just another conquest potential conquest for him. The General Yen of the book is obnoxious but at least somewhat likeable; the General Yen of the movie is downright despicable. Asther’s accent also seems to be all over the place. Sometimes vaguely Chinese, sometimes reminiscent of Bela Lugosi in Dracula, sometimes almost British.
Gone are the electric battle-of-wills scenes of the novel. Instead, we get scenes of Megan’s clear manipulation by everyone around her: the General, the jealous-but-also-traitorous Mah-Li (whose betrayl is much more obvious from the get-go in the movie), and even fellow American Jones (Schultz in the book). Gone also is Yen’s noble sacrifice at the end of the book, replaced with a “all hope is lost” suicide-by-poison that is supposed to be nobly romantic but instead is just creepy as hell.
Walter Connelly’s Jones might be the character who, despite the name change, remains closest to the book version: Jones is manipulative, money-grubbing and a drunken lout. There’s something to be said for consistency. Gavin Gordon’s Robert Strike (combining Megan’s fiancée with the doctor who leads her into trouble) barely affects the plot and isn’t seen again once he escapes the mob that threatens Megan. Captain Li, played by an actual Asian-American actor, has no lines (not even sub-titled).
What Capra gets right, of course, is the direction and cinematography: the fuzzy borders of Megan’s awkward dream, the dark fire-lit scenes of the destruction wrought by war, the intense close-ups during the main characters’ verbal battles and the sweeping panoramas of Yen’s country estate. I really wish he’d eschewed the romantic through-line and let Stanwyck really go to work on a true battle of the wills – although I suspect Asther would have been the clear loser in that case, Stanwyck is just that good.