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.

Forbidden (Capra, 1932)

Barbara Stanwyck performance of sheer suffering makes Forbidden a tolerable melodrama. Directed by a young Frank Capra, this story of unrequited love follows an ill conceived romance between a librarian named Lulu (Stanwyck) and a District Attorney (played with wooden ease by Adolphe Menjou). Throw in a jealous newspaper editor (Ralph Bellamy) and you’ve got a genuine love triangle, one with all the excitement of a root canal. Capra follows with these characters for decades, yet never sustains a complex resonance with them except for Lulu, whose pain and anguish include giving up her only child, sacrificing her life’s work, and standing by while her man ascends to the governorship with only a few kisses to show for. Sorry Mr. Capra, there’s no way this Phyllis Dietrichson should have waited twenty years to put a cap in somebody’s behind. She deserves a lot better.

Lady for a Day (Capra, 1933)

Typical feel good Capra about a poor apple vendor named Annie who has somehow kept her daughter living in Europe convinced that she’s a wealthy society type. Girl wants to get married, girl needs rich fiance to meet mom, foreigners come over to depression era New York to be convinced and celebrate. With a little help from her friends; gangsters, other beggars, politicians, and much more, Annie’s stage is set for a large game of comedic deception, a large facade of wealth to try and convince the snobby they’re worth a damn. Snazzy dialogue and a great supporting turn by Ned Sparks as Happy McGuire, the wise cracking right hand man to the main Hood, save the film from being too mushy. Can’t blame Capra for making a feel good satire in such downtrodden times, but he’s made way better. Mr. Smith and Mr. Deeds offer hypnotic performances, genuine social critique and feeling, traits Lady For a Day lacks.