Here are three pre-Code films about women from the West who find themselves in dangerous situations in exotic lands (China in two, Russia in the other). The women are thrown upon their own resources, their ability to adapt and survive, with little or no support or worse, with formidable enemies trying to engineer their failure and death.

In Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express, Magdalen (Dietrich), aka Shanghai Lily, has for the five years since Captain Harvey left her been making her living as a “China coaster,” a woman who lives by her wits up and down the China coast. She meets up with her old lover and gets caught in the intrigues of the civil war—spies, warlords, blackmail, murder.

In Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress, Sophia Frederica of Prussia finds herself renamed Catherine II after her marriage to the mad heir apparent to the Russian throne, surrounded by political intrigue, without a single ally, so she has to create alliances with the only tools at hand: her willingness to both trade sexual favors for loyalty and to surpass in treachery her rivals and enemies.

And in Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932), Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck), kidnaped by a Chinese warlord on the night she was to wed her childhood sweetheart, a missionary, finds herself in General Yen’s remote summer palace in a land torn by civil war, with the general pursuing her and a firing squad outside her bedroom window. Megan’s kind heart, good intentions, and rosy fantasies have her urging Christian forgiveness on General Yen, who combines delicate sensibilities with reasoned ruthlessness in a way that confuses and stirs her.

I. Unexpected Eroticism, Dangerous Naïvete: Barbara Stanwyck in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

Bitter Tea Yen unmasked

Like The Third Man, this film is about an American stumbling into a cultural, moral, political rat’s nest of enormous complexity and having not the slightest inkling of what’s going on or how crude and destructive their clueless interventions are. Well-intentioned Holly Martins gets his moral platitudes from the pulp westerns he writes, and Megan Davis gets hers from breathless romance novels and feel-good theology. Her life has been very sheltered, and her own temperament blinds her to the intrigues that exist in every setting in every culture. In any case, like Holly, Megan is stomping around playing with other people’s lives with absolutely no clue what is really happening, what anything means, and of the enormous consequences of her refusal or inability to see reality. Holly gets several people killed including his friend the black-market profiteer Harry Lime, and Megan brings down the man she probably loves, though she isn’t able to acknowledge it. For his part, General Yen is also blinded by a romantic fantasy of being accepted and loved by Megan. The difference is that Yen sees his own folly and consciously gives himself to it, while Megan urges him to give selflessly but can’t recognize that he loves her and forgives her, freely and completely, for destroying him.

The opening scenes, at what was supposed to be the wedding of Megan (Stanwyck) and her childhood sweetheart, missionary Bob Strike, take place at Mrs. Jackson’s house in “the settlement” in Shanghai (I’m thinking of the Green Zone in Baghdad and every other gated community surrounded by the native people of an occupied populace, where the people inside are insulated from the realities right outside their gates). Mrs. Jackson and her neighbors, all white people taken care of by Chinese servants, know nothing about the culture or people in their homes or those right outside, who while her guests chat and enjoy their hors d’oeuvres are fleeing for their lives as gunfire and explosions punctuate the night.

One of the guests, Bishop Harkness, speaks of Megan’s impending wedding to Strike: “Yes, it’s glorious…and yet, I pity her. I’ve spent 50 years in China, and there are times when I think we’re just a lot of persistent ants, trying to move a great mountain…. When I think of what she has to face, I… Only last month, I learned a terrible lesson. I was telling the story of the crucifixion to some Mongolian tribesmen. I thought I had touched their hearts. They crept closer to my little platform, their eyes burning with the wonder of their attention. Mongolian bandits, mind you, listening, spellbound. …But alas. I had misinterpreted their interest in the story. The next caravan of merchants that crossed the Gobi desert was captured by them and…crucified. That, my friends, is China.”

At least the Bishop has the sense and humility to admit 50 years in China have taught him only one thing: He has no more understanding of the people and culture around him than he did when he arrived—a very good place to start. Perhaps if he had another 50 years he might achieve the humility and willingness he’d need to actually serve. Bob Strike, still a young man, seems not yet to have begun to see this hard truth. He cares about the Chinese people; he’s willing to risk his life to save the orphans in his charge, he is filled with sincere good intentions. Perhaps what happens to Megan will challenge his rock-solid faith in his mission and his ability to fulfill it.

The party is waiting for Megan, who has just arrived on the boat. They don’t know that en route to the house Megan’s rickshaw boy was hit by a limousine and killed, and that nobody seemed to give a rat’s ass about it. She meets the tall, imposing owner of the limousine, General Yen (yes, we’re deep in the long era of yellowface, so Yen is played by Swedish actor Nils Asther), who was riding in the limousine, and he philosophically responds to Megan’s shock by saying that the dead boy is lucky—after all, at its best, life is hardly bearable.

Bitter Tea Megan rickshaw watching Yen

Megan watching Yen after his limousine kills her rickshaw boy, her introduction to life and death in China.

Megan: The owner of the car looked so civilized. I wonder who he was?

Mrs. Jackson (Clara Blandick, probably best remembered as Auntie Em): Some rich merchant, taking refuge in the settlement. But don’t be fooled about his looking civilized. They’re all tricky, treacherous, and immoral. I can’t tell one from the other. They’re all Chinamen to me.

Megan (described by Mrs. Jackson as being from “one of the finest old Puritan families in New England”) is during her early scenes in both presence and accent Back Bay by way of Canarsie. I can’t tell if Stanwyck couldn’t find the character or if Megan is supposed to be a fish out of water, her American optimism and perkiness off-key on this other continent that might as well be another planet.

Strike bursts in and announces that the wedding will have to wait—right now he has to rescue some orphans in a battle zone. Megan’s utter cluelessness is immediately apparent when she insists on accompanying him on this dangerous errand, about five minutes after she has arrived in the country.

Megan [perky]: If there are any bandit-generals to be tamed or children to be rescued, I’m in on it. … Whaddaya think I came to China for?

What indeed. And Dr. Strike matches her in naïvete, agreeing to bring her along, showing no regard for her personal safety or for the risk she adds to an already delicate operation involving the lives of children. So perhaps it’s not surprising that he leaves her alone in the car while he goes in to see General Yen to get a safe-conduct pass, telling her “If anyone speaks to you, just glare at them.” This seems a tad cavalier given the chaotic state of he streets, teeming with refugees. But Megan has already shaken off the rickshaw boy’s death, and she’s ready for more adventures—whaddaya think she came to China for?

Upon hearing that Strike is out in the streets when he could be with his bride, Yen presents Strike with a “pass” that reads (in calligraphy, which Strike can’t read):

Bitter Tea Chinese pass 2

Bitter Tea English pass

The nighttime urban battles in Bitter Tea… showed something new—warfare against civilians. The flares and explosions, snipers and machine guns, bands of rebels ready to loot and worse… this was something new in a Hollywood movie, though when the next world war began less than 10 years later, footage like this would become a mind-numbing constant in the newsreels.

Bitter Tea keyhole

The cinematography is lush and painterly, lots of the early scenes shot in very little light, something only a master cinematographer like Joseph Walker would dare, and in these sequences of chaos in the streets, the darkness intensifies the sense of dislocation and danger, but it’s still beautiful.

Bitter Tea machine gunner

Saving the orphans, Shanghai in flames

Saving the orphans, Shanghai in flames

Dr. Strike, Megan, and the six little kids they are trying to get to safety press themselves against a house as an attacking force moves through, shooting and setting buildings ablaze. Bombs explode, the children’s crying is drowned in the noise, flames light the sky and trucks roll past with machine guns going nonstop; Capra shows us the faces of our little group, waiting terrified for a break in the battle. Planes are strafing, there are shooting and explosions in the streets, and panicked refugees congest the street as they flee with whatever possessions they can carry.

Bitter Tea orphans Megan Bob

As Dr. Strike gets the last child settled in a rickshaw he is hit in the head and knocked out; the rickshaw takes off leaving Megan crying out after him until she too is struck in the head and knocked unconscious. She wakes up on General Yen’s troop train, being attended by his consort, Mah-Li.

Bitter Tea on the train

Stanwyck comes alive in her first scene with Asther, on her first morning at Yen’s summer palace. She didn’t quite seem to believe herself as the girlish, gung-ho missionary’s helpmeet, but face to face with Asther, she’s instantly in the groove. Asther’s warmth and intensity gives her something to connect with, and it grounds her performance. He sees Megan very clearly, and she finds herself in his eyes.

“You’re lying! Dr. Strike told me all about you. You yellow swine! [at this, we blanch with Yen] … If you think that…”

The silent pain on his face, not entirely contained by his discipline, stops her. He manages a slight smile, bows, clicks his heels, and softly says “You will always find me…your most humble servant.” He holds her eyes for a few seconds, then leaves her.

But just this once she’s right: He is lying when he tells her he’ll send her back to Shanghai as soon as it’s safe. In fact, since the newspapers are reporting that she’s dead, he’s decided not to return her at all. Cynical, hard-drinking, hard-headed Jones, Yen’s American financial adviser, who can “squeeze 50 times more out of this province than anyone else,” urges Yen not to play with fire: “Wait a minute—listen. I’ve never interfered in your private affairs before, but don’t forget—this is a white woman.”

Yen replies smoothly, “That’s all right. I have no prejudice against her color.”

This in a Hollywood movie made in 1932.

And directed by Frank Capra. I was so surprised. It’s not that I don’t recognize his enormous talent, but I thought I knew him from his best-known work, like It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith, Meet John Doe, It’s a Wonderful Life—and none of them, even with their undertow of darkness that goes unnoticed by so many viewers, prepared me for the sophistication and daring of this film.

When he made this movie, Frank Capra had already directed more than 20 films and written still more. He was a mature artist in full command of his craft when he made this at poverty-row studio Columbia, and it was the biggest budget movie the studio had ever made. Had it been a hit, film history might have been different. Upon its failure to win an audience or an Academy Award for him, Capra vowed he would never again stick his neck out for art, and while he made a number of films that are successful and beloved, he was as good as his word. He followed this with Lady for a Day, a skillful, sentimental adaptation of a Damon Runyon story, and after that had his massive breakout success with the delightful It Happened One Night. However, despite himself, his vision darkened even before he went to war and returned unable to make the kind of movies that had made him one of Hollywood’s most commercially successful directors. In 1941 he made Meet John Doe, hardly a lighthearted outing, and if you don’t get distracted by the comic relief you can find a depressive lurking at the heart of his most popular romantic comedies, like Mr. Deeds and very definitely Mr. Smith. But the moral complexity of The Bitter Tea…, its daring interracial eroticism, its harrowing street battles, its delicately shaded characters, and its stunning, glowing, cinematography, are among his works in a class by themselves.

Bitter Tea firing squad from window

Day and night, irreconcilable contradictions for Megan: in the morning, a firing square outside her window at Yen’s summer palace…

The firing squad is busy outside Megan’s window, killing Yen’s prisoners.

“I’ve never heard anything so cold-blooded in all my life,” says Megan, who has gone from a comfortable home in Boston to being dropped smack in the middle of a civil war in a country she knows nothing about.

Yen looks puzzled. “But isn’t it better to shoot them quickly than let them starve to death slowly?”

He loves her so much he moves the firing squad down the road to avoid distressing her. Would she like a cigarette? He proudly offers her one, showing that he has both Turkish and Virginia tobacco.

Megan watching young lovers under the cherry blossom moon

…and in the evening, from the same window: young lovers under the cherry blossom moon

Three times Megan says no to Yen’s invitation to dinner; three times Mah-Li gives Yen the notes to Dr. Strike that Megan has entrusted to her. Megan is falling under the spell of the Chinese moon and her exotic host. Now dressed in Chinese silk pajamas rather than her own modest outfit, she falls asleep (probably faint from hunger) on her terrace, watching young soldiers frolicking with their girls, and has a dream that must have really packed a wallop in 1932….

Bitter tea the fiend

Something is busting down her door. It is a Yellow Peril monster, almost but not quite Yen, his face ice cold and devoid of feeling. She can’t clearly make him out—she tries superimposing Yen’s face on his, but it doesn’t really fit. The apparition approaches, almost leering, his curving fingernails and long, tapered fingers clutching the air as he prepares to have his way with her.

Bitter Tea fingernails

There is a shot framed by his fingernails, with Megan’s face in the center. She recoils, but he is inches from her face, beginning to softly caress her shoulders (it is her shoulders, though it reads as her breasts) as she writhes in distress, when another figure appears at the door.

This one wears white pants, a dark jacket, a white fedora, and a black mask over his eyes. The attacker stands up and prepares to defend himself. The masked man, light on his feet, strikes the attacker once, and he falls backward through the dreamspace.

Bitter Tea Yen rescues in dream

Megan looks relieved and lovingly at the masked man, who jauntily doffs his fedora, smiling, and takes her by the hands and draws her to him. She looks on tenderly and removes the mask, revealing him to be—Yen, as the music turns romantic.

Together in the only place where there is no Megan Davis and no Yen—"just you and I"

Together in the only place where there is no Megan Davis and no Yen—”just you and I”

They smile at each other as lovers do. We see Megan’s face backed by motion, as if she’s on a carousel.

Bitter Tea dream superimposed kiss

Yen gently caresses her, looking with joy into her eyes, and they slowly move into a leisurely, passionate kiss, until—she is jolted awake.

As she comes to and remembers the dream, Stanwyck looks confused, then alarmed. Can you imagine how disturbing this must have been to most audiences in 1932? It wasn’t the first interracial love story (perhaps that was Griffith’s Broken Blossoms), but the eroticism is obvious. What we have is a respectable white woman (from that fine old Puritan family) dreaming of an Asian man. The racial issue alone is insurmountable, and then there’s that whole heathen warlord thing. She is still afraid, but now she is afraid of something new: her own feelings. Stanwyck is now fully into her own depths, her openness, her seamless shifts between flickering thoughts and feelings. She is a completely different woman from the one I found not quite believable in the first 30 minutes of the movie.

After the dream: Megan and Yen on the terrace

After the dream: Megan and Yen on the terrace

Yen is there on her terrace, and she scolds him for not knocking. Oh, but he did knock, he says: “I almost broke the door down, but you didn’t hear me.” So it was Yen’s knocking that supplied the door breaking down in Megan’s dream…. There is a real connection between them, whether she wants it or not. She thinks in terms of either/or, binary logical statements, and Yen’s embodiment of contradictions threatens the foundations of her world. She is drawn to him, but the harder he tries to overcome her resistance, to show her that he’s not what she thinks, she panics and pushes him away. Only in her dreams can her desire have full play and unmask her yearning, her lover.

General Yen is the anti-Fu Manchu. He is a complex character, not a paranoid cartoon bent on world domination (though perhaps domination of more than the province he already controls). Where Fu is a fiend, a sadistic maniac, Yen is discreet and tender, patient and deeply hurt by Megan’s rejection. Yen is imaginative, not enslaved by someone else’s fantasy. “The conquest of a province or the conquest of a woman—what’s the difference?” he cries exuberantly, when it’s all going south for him. He’s also the opposite of the other warlord in our triple feature, Shanghai Express‘s General Chang (Warner Oland), as stereotypically rotten a villain as you expect from a movie of the era.

Megan: It’s pretty hard to become acquainted with a man who ruthlessly slaughters helpless prisoners in one move, and in the next shows such a tender reverence for the beauty of the moon.

Yen: You have the true missionary spirit. Really Miss Davis, there are times when I would like to laugh at you. But there are also times when I find you…admirable. There are also moments when I…perhaps I shouldn’t speak of it [He has been gazing at her steadily, and has moved toward her, leaning toward her face. She is in her chair, smiling at him, her arms relaxed on the arms of the chair, her body language open]. I might astound you. Perhaps you believe us…incapable of such moments. Yes, I’m sure you do. Have you ever read our poetry, Miss Davis? Do you understand our music? Have you ever seen our paintings, of women walking among fruit trees, where the fruit trees look like women, and the women look like fruit trees? [Her smile has fallen; she looks serious and confused]

The women look like fruit trees and the fruit trees look like women?

The women look like fruit trees and the fruit trees look like women?

Megan thinks she is afraid Yen will force her to have sex with him. She’s actually afraid of her own desire. This is the drama she is living in through the entire story, while empires crash around her, because of her. She projects her romantic ideal onto Mah-Li, unable to accept Mah-Li’s guilt because it doesn’t fit her fantasy.

Bitter Tea lingerie Stanwyck

For a Stanwyck movie of the period, there are very few lingerie scenes, but as Spencer Tracy says in Pat and Mike, “what’s there is cherce.”

Playing dress-up: Trying on a new identity

Playing dress-up: Trying on a new identity

But Megan finds a way to reassert her moral superiority and shore up her growing uncertainty in dealing with Yen. When she finds out that Mah-Li has been selling information to Yen’s enemies and that he is going to kill her, she instantly shifts into emergency missionary mode, begging Yen to forgive “the child.”

In her dealings with Mah-Li, Megan’s naiveté becomes dangerous.  In Megan’s simpleminded philosophy, no matter what Mah-Li has done, if Yen forgives her, she will be good (no longer a threat).  She believes in Mah-Li, who seems grateful for Megan’s kindness but is only wondering how best to leverage it. Megan can’t be honest with herself, cannot accommodate her own contradictions, and that’s why she can’t see through Mah-Li. Her own dishonesty blinds her to the dishonesty of others.

Yen receives Megan in his quarters, both of them attired for bed. Yen opens his chamber door and bows to Megan. Asther plays Yen with great panache. He’s so tall, and when he bends to bow the effect is both elegant and somehow self-mocking, as if he knows she finds him slightly ridiculous. His tone in speaking with her always starts off light, but if the conversation goes on a little his voice drops and he grows more serious without ever losing that hint of a smile, the defense of self-mockery he’ll need for the rejection that always comes.

Megan confronts Yen about ordering Mah-Li’s execution and he does not deny it. She thinks it’s about some petty personal jealousy (Megan thinks everything is personal; she seems unaware of the existence of politics or economics, anything beyond the personal sphere); he explains that she has been selling his secrets to his enemies.

Why, he asks Megan, is she so interested in Mah-Li?

“I’m just as interested in you.” (This has a double meaning: the evangelist’s interest in a prospect, and Megan’s own unconscious desire for Yen.) Now we’re seeing his face / her back, and for a few seconds he comes as close to losing his composure as we ever see. Then he finds his ironic smile and says, “I’m deeply flattered.”

“But not deeply moved. Can’t you forgive her? She’s only a child.” (Megan says this often about lyin’ betrayin’ Mah-Li, showing her lack of judgment about character. Besides, Mah-Li is absolutely an adult. It’s unintentionally patronizing Megan who is the child, unable to see beyond her own unconscious agenda)

A Buddha impassively observes Megan's pleading for Mah-Li

A Buddha impassively observes Megan’s pleading for Mah-Li

“You can always do so much more with mercy than you can with murder. Why don’t you give her another chance? Oh, I know that you feel she has deceived you and sold information to your enemies, perhaps even been unfaithful to you. All that’s dreadful, and if it’s true you have a certain justification in wanting to crush her.” [She is building up to her big finish]

“But I want you to think of all those things and then forgive her. I don’t know how you feel about Mah-Li, I mean, whether you love her…well, like a lover, but that’s of no importance. I want you to see the beauty of giving love where it isn’t merited. Any man can give love when he’s sure of its return—that isn’t love at all. But to give love with no thought of merit, no thought of return, no thought of gratitude even, that’s ordinarily the privilege of God. And now it’s your privilege…. Oh general, with all you have within you, your superior brain, your culture, how can you be so blind to spiritual greatness? Do this thing I ask you. Do it for me. Do it even blindly if you must, and I promise you, I’m so sure of it [she is beginning to make herself cry], I promise you that for the first time in your life you’ll know what real happiness is. You’ll know that I… ” [she stops, overcome with emotion, she thinks from her heartfelt evangelism but it’s also from her unconscious feelings for Yen]

Of course, this love she wants him to experience, love as God loves, is how he feels about her. All that toying with her stuff from when he kidnaped her has been extinguished with very deep feeling. I’m not sure why. Has he been humbled by her disciplined refusal of him? He is a man used to getting his own way, even if he has to kill for it. Now he looks lost when she says she is interested in him. But Megan is blind to it.

Yen knows Megan is wrong, but he will forgive Mah-Li to please her, because it pleases him, not matter the consequences

Yen knows Megan is wrong, but he will forgive Mah-Li to please her, because it pleases him, not matter the consequences

Yen says, “You must be sincere, Miss Davis. I don’t believe a word you say, but when you ask me like that…I forget I am General Yen. …But still I ask, What do you get out of it? You have only known her few days, and still you act as if she were of your own flesh and blood.”

Megan [excited]: “She is, we’re all of one flesh and blood.”

Bitter Tea hands

Yen, carefully, softly: “Really? Do you mean that?” he puts his hand over hers, on the desk.

She pulls her hand away, touches her throat, looks at him with tears in her eyes: “Of course I do.”

“Words…nothing but words. You came in here to preach.”

She says that the one who brought these words gave up his life for them.

He says, “What are you willing to give up, then?”

“What do you mean?”

“Surely your pleasure would not be complete without some sacrifice on your part.”

“Sacrifice?” [she has not thought this through]

“Yes. You are so interested to save the life of Mah-Li… Are you willing to be a hostage for her future loyalty? … I expect nothing from you. Nothing but words and phrases you learned in Sunday school. You don’t believe in them anymore than I do. You were wrong when you said I resent missionaries. I despise them. There should be another Great Wall to keep your kind out.”

Spunky Megan’s eyes are blazing now. She seems to have gotten her personality from a penny dreadful novel. He’d best watch out; she has a fine rage, her anger is something to behold. She tosses her head, she’s not afraid of him! And she defiantly agrees to be hostage for Mah-Li’s loyalty.

Protecting Mah-Li

Protecting Mah-Li

When he’s forgiving Mah-Li, to Jones’s consternation, Yen says to her: “You know and I know that the moment my back is turned, you’re going to throw a knife into it.”

Jones asks Yen, What are you up to now, and Yen strokes his chin and says, I am going to convert a missionary.

So the game has changed. Yen is no longer attached to his empire and his war. He knows he will lose it; he knows Mah-Li will betray him; he knows Megan cannot guarantee Mah-Li’s loyalty because she doesn’t see her disloyalty. And the great irony is that a real manifestation of the religious hokum Megan is urging on Yen is right in front of her in his self-sacrificing love, but that she cannot see.

Mah-Li instantly starts selling information again, this time using Megan as her chaperone to the temple, where what Megan thinks is a forgiveness prayer is detailed information on the location of Yen’s and Jones’s money train. Megan is very proud of Mah-Li: “I knew you were a good girl.”

Betrayal in the temple: Mah-Li's "forgiveness prayer" is the coup de grace for Yen

Betrayal in the temple: Mah-Li’s “forgiveness prayer” is the coup de grace for Yen

Poor Megan: Her kindness and forgiveness bring ruin and destruction. Perhaps she unconsciously wants to bring Yen down. He unsettles her so deeply, and she doesn’t have the resources to resolve the issues he raises in her mind and heart. Perhaps underneath, she does see Mah-Li and know what she’s doing…. Megan isn’t an idiot; it’s hard otherwise to account for her being such a complete fool, incapable of putting one and one together (not to mention 2 and 2).

Mah-Li listens as the priest reads aloud her "prayer," the knife Yen knew was coming

Mah-Li listens as the priest reads aloud her “prayer,” the knife Yen knew was coming

Megan stands oblivious as Mah-Li exults: As the priest chants her "prayer," Yen's enemies behind the screen telegraph the info to their chief

Megan stands oblivious as Mah-Li exults: As the priest chants her “prayer,” Yen’s enemies behind the screen telegraph the info to their chief

When the general’s money train is ambushed before Jones can get it hidden, Capra gives us another great nighttime action sequence with an ambush train, lots of shooting, looting, howls of triumph as the marauders steal the money train. Jones is left standing in the dark, watching the train and Yen’s future race away.

Jones trying to get the money train hidden, moments before it is ambushed and stolen

Jones trying to get the money train hidden, moments before it is ambushed and stolen

Bitter Tea train ambush

Bitter Tea slaughter on train

Jones alone: watching the money (and Yen's future) disappear

Jones alone: watching the money (and Yen’s future) disappear

*    *    *

Yen calls Megan and Jones clues her in. Mah-Li is gone, the money is gone. Yen, though, is remarkably composed. Megan finally realizes what she’s done. But even then, her thought is not for Yen. She’s humbled by being wrong, and she’s afraid that he will expect her, as his hostage, to sleep with him.

Jones says to Yen, “That’s a pretty fancy price to pay for what you’re counting on.”

Yen: “Oh, calm yourself. The conquest of a province…or the conquest of a woman—what’s the difference?”

Jones bemoans their plight. Yen: "Oh, calm yourself!"

Jones bemoans their plight. Yen: “Oh, calm yourself!”

Jones is in Megan’s chamber. He says he “hates her insides” but they’re both Americans and he’ll get her out of this, he’s been in tougher spots before. A little servant woman brings a note, in English, from Yen requesting Megan’s presence. Jones says she doesn’t have to go, but she does, dutifully.

Yen's cordial invitation

Yen’s cordial invitation

In Yen’s apartment, he shyly tries to befriend her. Perhaps he thinks that now that he’s lost everything there will be no obstacles between them. He shows her the book the Chinese use to pick features for their portraits. She is grim and self-absorbed, sure he’s going to ravish her. She once again can’t see what is really happening. She can’t look up, can’t make any connection with him. She’s lost in her own self-centered fear. Yen plays a record. Megan is growing ever more tense and anxious. He offers her some Champagne; she manages to shake her head no. He drinks some, tells a story about his ancestor the poet who drowned trying to catch the moon in the Yellow River… he is cordial, a little nervous, as if they have just met. telling her about his ancestors.

Yen trying to make friends; Megan trapped in her Yellow Peril fantasy

Yen trying to make friends; Megan trapped in her Yellow Peril fantasy

"How do you like this nose? Do you think it resembles General Yen?" (Please, look at me)

“How do you like this nose? Do you think it resembles General Yen?” (Please, look at me)

“Oh please, why do you torture me?”

Poor Yen. Once again he has been extinguished in her self-absorption.

“I’m afraid you misunderstood my purpose in sending for you.”

“I’m not altogether a fool.”

“You didn’t think I meant the…conventional thing, did you?” he’s trying to think better of her, not that she is so conventional in her own thinking.

“Didn’t you?”

“Do you think that General Yen could accept anything that the heart did not freely give?” She raises her head from her hands, looks at him for the first time. “Oh no, that opportunity has been open to me ever since you came here. [now he is angry] But your life, you put up as a forfeit for Mah-Lli’s loyalty.

“My life?” she says, shocked. All that Christianity, and she is completely stunned at the idea of actual sacrifice.

“Yes. What else did you think it meant?” [he is enunciating too clearly now, so angry] Oh, I see. You are afraid of death as you are afraid of life. You want me to send you back to your Dr. Strike. He speaks the same meaningless words as you do. He has everything you want. You would like to be able to boast to him that the great General Yen, whom everybody feared, was destroyed  because he was fool enough to hope. Well, why don’t you go? Go on to him.

Megan: You taught me a terrible lesson. [even here, after she has ruined him, for her it is about herself, not him]

Yen: Yes. To be able to do good works, one has to have wisdom. You depended too much on your beauty. And also the fact you are so young. Young and pale as a lotus blossom, which blooms at night. Oh torture! Real torture is to be despised of someone you love. [he embraces her; she is weeping silently] Bargain or no bargain, province or no province, do you know what I expected to do tonight? I was coming to your room to kill you and then follow you to some celestial garden where there is no General Yen, and no Megan Davis, just…you and I.

Bitter Tea Megan tear down cheek

She pulls away, leaves the chamber without a word.

He rings his bell; nobody comes. He calls out. Silence.

The palace, deserted

The palace, deserted

She opens the makeup chest, begins to take off her own dress.

He lights the burner to heat water for tea.

It is dark in his room, but beautifully lit. He opens the drawer, removes the ceramic vial. He closes his chamber doors. He sits in front of a lit round space bordered with figures of dragons. He measures out two spoons of tea, pours the hot water. He empties the vial carefully into the cup, stirs it.

Bitter Tea the vial

Bitter Tea measuring tea

Bitter Tea emptying the vial

In a romantic film, the lovers who are very different have to express in some way their moving closer together, becoming more like each other. In Bitter Tea…, the general loves Megan in the way she urged him to love by forgiving Mah-Li: with “no thought of merit, no thought of return, no thought of gratitude even.” She finally sees this, and she dresses in the heavy Chinese gown and makes herself up heavily, as Mah-Li did, to offer herself to him. She does not know that he has just finished steeping a cup of tea, just poured the vial of poison into it.

He is in total silence, he is just raising the cup to his lips when he hears her at the door.

Megan comes to Yen, ready to take Mah-Li's place.

Megan comes to Yen, ready to take Mah-Li’s place.

She comes in, all dolled up. She puts a pillow behind his back and covers his lap with a robe, just as she saw Mah-Li do on Yen’s troop train, that first night. She sits in front of him, pressed against his knees, still weeping.

Bitter Tea Megan Yen pillow

He has one last moment of hope and caresses her hair, thinks perhaps this is the moment of real intimacy he has been waiting for, but she just keeps crying, harder and harder.

Bitter Tea Yen caresses Megan face

He makes a sudden move, lifts the cup, takes three big sips, puts the cup down, and dies.

*   *   *

Bitter Tea on boat bissected by line

Jones and Megan are sitting on the deck of the boat back to Shanghai.

Megan is lost, disoriented, staring into middle space, while Jones is finishing a bottle:

“We ought to be in Shanghai in an hour. I bet you a week in China seems like a lifetime. Well, maybe it is at that. You know Yen once told me [then stops, remembers] Yen’s dead, in’t he. Great guy. I don’t think you’ll marry Strike. I gotta hunch you’re going back to America.

“Yen once told me you could crowd a lifetime into an hour, yeah, into a drink. Great guy. Great gambler. Told me he couldn’t lose. Heh, the joke was certainly on him. He lost his province, his army, his life. Maybe not… Maybe the joke’s on us.

“Uhhh, maybe you will marry Strike at that. Yen was crazy. He said we never really die, we only change. He was nuts about cherry trees. Well, maybe he’s a cherry tree now. Maybe he’s the wind that’s pushing that sail. Maybe he’s the wind that’s playing around your hair.

“Ah, it’s all a lot of hooey. I’m drunk.

“Just the same, I hope when I cool off, the guy who changes me sends me where Yen is.

“And I bet I’ll find you there, too.”

Bitter Tea final shot Megan closeup

Part II Deceit, Desire, and Survival: Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) and The Scarlet Empress (1934) is here.

This post was written for the 2015 Pre-code Blogathon, hosted by Danny at Pre-Code.com and Karen at Shadows and Satin. Use the links to read more of the fabulous entries!

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