Nils Asther

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

On the night they were to be married, American missionaries Megan Davis (Barbara Stanwyck) and Dr. Bob Strike (Gavin Gordon) have to put their wedding on hold to rescue some children from an orphanage stuck in the middle of a war zone. In order to get through safely, Dr. Strike asks the feared General Yen (Nils Asther) for a pass to get to the orphanage safely. But General Yen doesn’t think very highly of Dr. Strike and sends him on his way with a worthless piece of paper. Dr. Strike and Megan manage to make their way to the orphanage, but when they get them to the train station, they find themselves caught in the melee and are separated.

Megan is knocked unconscious and when she comes to, finds herself on General Yen’s private train being cared for by Mah-Li (Toshia Mori), Yen’s mistress. She isn’t clear-headed enough to realize who he is, but she figures it out pretty quickly when she wakes up in his summer palace. Yen terrifies her, but he’s quite smitten with her. She wants to leave immediately, but he refuses to let her leave, telling her it isn’t safe. She tries to get letters to Dr. Strike, but Mah-Li never sends them. Yen repeatedly asks her to join him for dinner, but she keeps refusing.

But one night, Megan has a dream about Yen that reveals her true feelings toward him: deep down inside, she’s in love with him. Finally, she stops resisting his advances and joins him for dinner. But while Megan is getting closer to Yen, Mah-Li is betraying his trust. Mah-Li is actually a spy who has been feeding information about Yen to his enemies. When Yen catches her, Megan begs him not to kill her and offers to personally keep an eye on her.  If anything happens again, he could kill Megan. Yen agrees, but when Mah-Li once again gives information to the enemies, information that leads to Yen’s downfall, Yen would rather take his own life than take Megan’s.

I really wanted to be able to like The Bitter Tea of General Yen, but I couldn’t really get into it. I’m just not a fan of movies that involve a woman being held against her will and she eventually falls in love with her captor. They’re just creepy to me. However, The Bitter Tea of General Yen is far less off-putting than, say, The Barbarian. Frank Capra was General Yen‘s director, so it’s safe to expect some very high production values from it. It has some very beautiful cinematography, Stanwyck and Asther had great chemistry together, and I loved Megan’s perfectly surreal dream sequence. Even though it was far from being one of my favorite movies, it was worth seeing at least once anyway.

Letty Lynton (1932)

Wealthy heiress Letty Lynton (Joan Crawford) has been busy living the high life in Uruguay.  She’s been carrying on a sordid affair with Emile Renaul (Nils Asther) for a while, but when she decides to give him up, she gets on the next boat home to New York. Letty’s tried leaving Emile before and has always come back, so he figures this is just another one of her whims.

But during the trip home, Letty meets Jerry Darrow (Robert Montgomery), and everything changes.  They fall madly in love with each other, but Letty absolutely does not want Jerry to know about her wild past.  She even considers getting off the boat when it makes a stop in Havana so he won’t find out. But before she can leave, Jerry proposes and naturally, Letty accepts.  They happily continue on to New York, but when the boat docks, Letty is horrified to see Emile waiting for her.  She sneaks away from Jerry and finds out the Emile wants to bring her back to Uruguay, but when Emile later finds out about Jerry and Letty’s engagement, he threatens to show Jerry the love letters she’s written to him.

Letty would rather die than let Jerry find out about Emile, so when she goes to Emile’s hotel room to get the letters, she brings a bottle of poison with her to commit suicide right then and there.  Of course, Emile isn’t about to give them up.  When he isn’t looking, she slips the poison into her drink, but then Emile takes the poisoned drink by mistake. Letty watches in horror as he dies, but ultimately can’t bring herself to be sorry.  She flees his hotel room and goes with Jerry to visit his parents.  But of course, the police come looking for Letty and she and Jerry have to be questioned.

I wouldn’t say Letty Lynton is one of the best movies of Joan Crawford’s entire career, but it is one of my favorites from her pre-code era.  Story-wise, it feels a little different from the rest.  One type of role Joan was most well-known for was the working class girl trying to move up in the world.  In Letty Lynton, she’s already pretty high up on the social ladder.  I love the scene after Emile accidentally takes Letty’s poisoned drink and Letty starts yelling at him about how she’s not sorry.  That’s the kind of scene that made me understand why Bette Davis may have possibly envied Joan’s career at that time.  I’m sure Bette would have loved to have played that scene.  It was a total Bette Davis moment made two years before Bette even started playing those kinds of roles.

Even though I could totally picture Bette Davis in this movie, I love Joan in it.  She, Robert Montgomery, and Nils Asther made a very enjoyable cast and it’s a pretty entertaining movie.  As Joan Crawford fans know, Letty Lynton has been completely out of circulation since 1936 when a court ruled that it had plagiarized the play Dishonored Lady.  If you look around enough, you can find bootleg copies of it, but it hasn’t been played in a theater since then, let alone shown on TV or officially released on VHS or DVD.

Joan in Adrian’s legendary Letty Lynton gown.

Late last year, reports surfaced that Warner Brothers was trying to straighten out the legal issues out so it could be released on DVD through Warner Archives and for it to be shown at the 2012 TCM Film Festival.  They weren’t able to get it ready for the TCM Festival, but I’m holding out hope that it will eventually be put out on DVD because Letty Lynton deserves to be seen.  Not only would Joan Crawford fans be thrilled, but this is one fans of pre-codes in general would love.  And if you appreciate costume design, Letty Lynton is worth seeing if only for the spectacular Adrian gowns Joan Crawford gets to wear.  Adrian did some of the best work of his career on Letty Lynton and to only be able to see that work through bootlegs copies of the movie is just unfortunate.

In the past, Warner Archive has successfully gotten The Constant Nymph and Night Flight out of legal messes and I’d be ecstatic if Letty Lynton could be added to the list.  Of those three movies, I’d say Letty Lynton is the best of the bunch.