The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Capra, 1933)

The Bitter Tea of General Yen centers around one of those “ahead of its time” romances, an interracial relationship between a white American missionary and a Chinese general/bandit, flung together by chance during the Chinese Civil War of 1927.

But Capra isn’t concerned with romantic foreshadowings leading up to this fateful connection, since the situation stems from a time of war and murder. The disturbing and lovely push-pull comes in a more confined space after the fact, where neither character can move but closer to the other.

Religion, faith, loyalty, and deception play large roles in both reinforcing and reversing stereotypes about Anglo imperialism and Chinese representation, yet the slow attraction between Megan (Barbara Stanwyck) and Yen (Nils Asther) feels genuinely unique, beyond such considerations. When these two gaze into each other’s eyes, the fledgling narrative melts away, Capra quieting the volatile space with the silence of perception and the tragedy of reality.

Even though this connection is born from jealousy, power, and control, both Megan and Yen come to see each other as life-changing forces. There are constant references to the brutality and unpredictability of China and its traditions, but Capra sees these traits in love itself, in the very act of committing to someone or something beyond yourself. The consequences are twofold, damaging to the psyche but completely worthwhile in the long run. The bitter irony of the title might be the greatest aspect of this revolutionary melodrama from Frank Capra, if not its most innovative.

Wild Boys of the Road (Wellman, 1933)

In a mere 70 minutes, William A. Wellman brilliantly captures the maddening dilemma facing American families on the brink of economic collapse. Wild Boys of the Road takes place during the Great Depression, but its themes and motifs are just as pertinent during today’s financial crisis. In the opening moments, wise-cracking teens Eddie (Frankie Darro) and Tommy (Edwin Phillips) attempt to sneak into a dance, their problems amounting to impressing girls and cruising the downtown strip. As each boy watches their parents lose jobs, wrestle with bills, and await impending eviction, they decide to leave home in search of a job, hoping to take the pressure off their families.

Part social manifesto, part tragic coming of age story, the film follows the boys as they meet other children of their ilk in freight cars and shanty towns on the fringes of middle America. Amazingly, these resilient kids form a strong collective in the face of staggering economic and social odds, watching as the world dismisses them despite their growing numbers. Like Wellman’s later great films Battleground and Island in the Sky, Wild Boys of the Road shows a group of characters in extreme distress, creating a new family dynamic to fend off imminent death. But with Wild Boys the protagonists are children, making the story both heart-breaking and inevitably filled with hope.

The Prisoner of Shark Island (Ford, 1936)

John Ford has a knack for illuminating major turning points in American History by focusing on the fringe events surrounding these climactic situations and the bit players often lost between the lines of text book mythology. The Prisoner of Shark Island highlights the story of Dr. Samuel Mudd, a compassionate country physician who unknowingly treats the injured John Wilkes Booth as he flees the scene of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Mudd, convicted of aiding and abetting Booth by a strict Military court, is sent to the prison island of Dry Tortugas off the coast of Florida, a dank and Noirsh locale surrounded by a moat of sharks.

What’s most interesting about Mudd’s situation is how badly he’s treated by vengeful Lincoln enthusiasts, personified by the lead guard of the prison. These tense scenes resonate a collective social angst in response to one of our first national tragedies, giving the film a viable complexity and sense of urgency. But the scope of the film becomes problematic as Ford relies more on one-dimensional historical events to redeem Mudd’s name in the public forum (the Yellow Fever outbreak). The trajectory feels unearned, already written, as if the flexibility of historiography is a moot point. But this is Ford at his most concise, if not his most simplistic. Thankfully, unlike other Ford biopics of the era (Arrowsmith), The Prisoner of Shark Island never becomes bloated or squanders its momentum, keeping us invested in the lead character damned by national anger, then resurrected by human compassion.

The Most Dangerous Game (Pichel, Schoedsack, 1932)

This Joel McCrea vehicle must have been daring for its time, considering the dark subject matter (hunting humans) and brutal execution of characters (one bad guy gets impaled!). Unfortunately, nowadays this all seems very familiar, making the film feel more dated than usual. Still, this early example of tightly paced action cinema remains a must see for classic film buffs.

The Edge of the World (Powell, 1937)

A beautifully tragic film from Michael Powell showing the social and economic decline of Hirta Island, a desolate community of farmers and fisherman slowly realizing their traditional way of life is coming to an end.  The haunting locale of epic white cliffs, endless grassy knolls, and thunderous waves all add a silent menace to the story, one taken with the consequences of progress on the natural order of things. The evacuation of the island produces a specific longing for the silence of a rural existence, Powell gracefully charting the end of one particular civilization.