Hold Your Man (1933)- Sam Wood

★★★★

 

All six films that Jean Harlow and Clark Gable made together are unique, and even memorable is some way. Their first, “The Secret Six” (1931) is a Wallace Beery picture, with smaller roles for up-and-comers like Gable, Harlow and even Ralph Bellamy. Clark Gable and Jean Harlow in "Hold Your Man" (1933)Their final film just six short years later, “Saratoga” (1937) is somewhat depressing, since Harlow’s untimely death during filming gives the production a meloncholy feeling. In between these bookends, this sizzling pair made four films filled with romance, sex, humor, lust, and love. Each one showcases this dynamic pair’s natural chemistry, and makes for a lasting impression upon their adoring audience- even if the Hays Code tries to get in the way and mess things up. In “Red Dust” (1932) they are perfectly suited lovers, jonting around the wilds of Africa, while allowing Mary Astor to create a high-class distraction for Gable, albeit one that we never believe since Gable and Harlow seem so perfect together. “China Seas” (1935) is a rehashing of the same, only not as good, and with plenty of Production Code “values” interfearing. In “Wife Vs. Secretary” (1936) their normal roles are thrown out the window, and things get shaken up, as Gable’s character is married to Myrna Loy, with Harlow as his head-over-heels in love secretary, vying for his affections. Clark Gable and Jean Harlow in "Hold Your Man" (1933)I love Myrna Loy, but this film (rightfully) seems awkward, because there is no way that Gable wouldn’t instantly be running off with Harlow. C’mon, you can see it in his eyes.

Right in the middle of their films together comes this film, “Hold Your Man” (1933)- a comedic drama, that with some outside influence, shows Production Code values, mixed with a fairly believable, real-life plot. Eddie Hall (Gable) is a handsome streetwise hustler, just trying to earn a buck. While on the run (quite literally) from the cops, he barges into the apartment of Ruby Adams (Harlow) right in the middle of her bath. (How rude, and yet 1930’s audience satisfying at the same time). On nothing but a first glance and a moment’s hesitation, Ruby hides Eddie and throws a regular tirade, convincing the police to get out of her place.Clark Gable and Jean Harlow in "Hold Your Man" (1933) Things escalate from there, both professionally and personally for the couple of big-smiled, money-hungry romantics, but before long, choices between love and freedom on the outside bring their time together to a hault.

“Hold Your Man” was adapted for the screen by Anita Loos and Howard Emmett. The screenplay in turn, is based on the novel by Loos, who was charged with the difficult task of keeping the juicy, real-life excitement of her story, and adding in enough “justice” to keep the howling wolves of the empending Production Code at bay. I am sure there are many who would, do, and will argue that in doing this adaptation, the story becomes conflicting. It does swing from one end of the spectrum to the other, with parts feeling like an intelligent comedy, and other moments playing like an intense melodrama. There is however, something genuine about a love that doesn’t instantly work out, and people that get put in the position to make life’s tough choices. I can see how under different circumstances this film could have fallen apart, but Harlow and Gable are so incredible that they do more than hold things together, they elevate them.Clark Gable and Jean Harlow in "Hold Your Man" (1933) Both actors are at the top of their game- Gable with his handsome appearance and crooked smile, and Harlow with her sex appeal and sassy, “don’t give me any lip” attitude. Lesser actors would have made a lesser film. With Harlow and Gable however, we are in good hands, and the result is one worth remembering.

 

 

 

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Angels Over Broadway (1940)- Ben Hecht

 ★★★★

 

In 1940, the brilliant screenwriter Ben Hecht wrote, produced, and directed the close-knit drama film “Angels Over Broadway“. Make no mistake about it, this is a flawed movie. Angels Over Broadway 1940When watching there are several moments when things could have been crafted better, but looking past these small insignificant misteps, and focusing on the heart of the story, (which is great) and the brilliance in the characters (which is significant) will provide a fruitful, worthwhile film from start to finish.

The entire movie, which feels more like a stage play than a film, takes place over the course of one rainy night in New York City. It is essentially a four-man show, that gives each of the main characters a chance to shine. Charles Engle (John Qualen) is a down on his luck businessman, who has embezzled $3000 from his employer in order to support his wife’s extravagant lifestyle, and now, being caught, is contemplating suicide. Bill O’Brien (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) is a low-level con-man, looking for some poor, rich, sucker to bleed dry. Gene Gibbons (Thomas Mitchell) is a past-his-prime play write, dreaming of his glory days, and wishing he could once again write with some imagination and meaning.Angels Over Broadway Last, but clearly not least, we have another low-level con artist, Nina Barona (Rita Hayworth), who is just looking for a way to earn a buck, and is more than willing to use her beauty to achieve this goal. All four of our disillusioned misfits wind up in the same nightclub, and after learning of one another’s troubles, come up with a plan for joint salvation.

As a character study, “Angels Over Broadway” is interesting and enthralling. When you hear the name Ben Hecht, writer comes to mind well before director, so it’s no real surprise that it is the writing that shines in this picture. He was given an Academy Award nomination for this original screenplay, and it is much deserved. On the surface it might not appear to be all that engaging, but once the film starts moving, there is a darkness that sets in, that is unsettling, but extremely intriguing. These are not happy-go-lucky people, living carefree lives. They are very real, and therefore, extremely relatable.

As with any character drama, the actors play a major part in the success of the picture. In “Angels Over Broadway” there is an interesting mix involved, including Hayworth, who looks great in this role, and is able to easily pull off the con-woman looking to change, because, well, she looks like an honest, good-hearted woman, desperate for a little romance. Fairbanks is solid in a role that doesn’t demand too much from him.Angels Over Broadway 1940 It’s not really a leading part, despite his top billing, but he meshes well with the others, and gives an honest (and one of his better) acting performances. In a somewhat unexpected twist it’s Thomas Mitchell and John Qualen who actually steal the picture. Their acting is phenomenal, and considering the substance of their roles, much of the film hangs on their performances. Luckily they deliver… superbly.

Lee Garmes served as cinematographer on “Angels over Broadway”, and is also given screen credit as co-director. Even combining Garmes and Hecht on directing duties still leaves “Angels Over Broadway” with a somewhat amateur quality. Garmes is an accomplished cinematographer and Hecht is one of the better screenwriters out there, but neither are (or should be) remembered for their directing abilities.Angeles Over Broadway 1940 Oddly enough they re-teamed in 1952 to co-direct another film “Actor’s and Sin”, with about the same results.

Even with a few small flaws, “Angels Over Broadway” has much to offer a patient audience, not afraid of commitment. Of course with Qualen, Mitchell, Hayworth, and Fairbanks, it’s hard to go wrong!

 

Knight Without Armour (1937)- Jacques Feyder

 ★★★★★

 

Novelist and Academy Award winning screenwriter James Hilton is best remembered for his touching, often romantic, epic-feeling stories that to some are slightly melodramatic. Many of these novels were made into successful films, with some of the day’s top directors at the helm, such as “Lost Horizon” (1938) by Frank Capra, “Goodbye Mr. Chips” (1939) by Sam Wood, and “Random Harvest” (1942) by Mervyn LeRoy. (All three of which earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture.) Hilton also penned another lesser known (at least today) novel in 1933, that was then transferred to the screen by legendary filmmaker Alexander Korda, and directed by Jacques Feyder, titled “Knight Without Armour” (1937). Although wildly unpopular in its time, today “Knight Without Armour” stands out for its courage to improve the art of filmmaking, the innovative style that embodies the production, the larger-than-life Knight Without Armour (1937)realism of a war-torn country, and marvelously touching and emotional performances from the films stars: Robert Donat and Marlene Dietrich.

Set in Russia in 1913, an Englishman (Robert Donat) in love with the country of Russia is being forced to leave, until the British Secret Service offers him a job going undercover as Russian Peter Ouranoff in a revolutionary group, in order to report upon the group’s movements. He succeeded in passing himself off as a revolutionary, but a failed assassination attempt on a high-ranking officer and his daughter, Alexandra (Marlene Dietrich), goes wrong, and the would be assassin leads his pursuers directly to Ouranoff’s home. As punishment for his involuntary involvement, Ouranoff is sent to Siberia, just before the beginning of World War I.

He sits in Siberia, in almost constant darkness, throughout the duration of the War with another of “his” revolutionaries, Axelstein (Basil Gill). But after the war ends and the Bolsheviks have come into power, Axelstein becomes Commissar and makes Ouranoff his right-hand man. Alexandra, meanwhile, is now a widow, living the life of luxury as an aristocrat. However, when the Bolsheviks take over her estate, Alexandra is taken captive and Commissar Axelstein commands Ouranoff to Knight Without Armour (1937)deliver her to Petrograd to stand trial.

That is when the heart of the film finally makes its way to the surface, as Ouranoff and Alexandra share a love-at-first-sight experience, and Ouranoff puts himself (and her, for that matter) in tremendous peril as he attempts to deliver her to safety through the war-torn country.

“Knight Without Armour” is brilliant and innovative in so many ways it’s hard to know where to start. Jacques Feyder  is not a director that is mentioned often these days, but not because of a lack of talent. It was more that he had trouble finding a comfortable place to call home, and the eclectic group of directorial efforts that he left behind are a lasting example of how far across the spectrum his films traveled. “Knight Without Armour” benefits from his strengths as a foreign director, as he (along with the film’s producer, Alexander Korda) seems to bring a European feel to things, that an American director may have lacked. Knight Without Armour (1937)Miklos Rozsa contributes as well, with a Russian inspired score that is intoxicating- perhaps even on the verge of unsettling (much in the way so many of his later scores would be).

Cinematographer Harry Stradling, using a flowing camera that appears to be embarking on the love affair with the actors, only improves things more. He has photographed Dietrich much in a way that reminds one of her von Sternberg films, but without losing sight of the heart of the picture. It’s not just a Marlene movie after all, and too much focus on her would have ruined the romance of the picture. In addition to Dietrich’s strong, more than capable performance, Donat is at his very best here. (In fact he is significantly superior to his award-winning role in “Goodbye Mr. Chips” .) In a turn that is perhaps somewhat surprising, the stars’ chemistry is extremely believable, as the passion between them is executed extremely well as it buildsKnight Without Armour (1937) throughout the entire film.

In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s the “spy thriller” emerged in a new way as the impending war drew nearer. “Knight Without Armour” fits nicely into the spy genre, along with more notable pictures like Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” (1935), “The Lady Vanishes” (1938), or “Foreign Correspondent” (1940), as well as Carol Reed’s “Night Train to Munich” (1940). There is plenty of suspense and international intrigue, and the characters are all well-developed and interesting. The sole problem with the overall splendor of this film is that is doesn’t dig deep enough to fully satisfy. There is already an undeniable “Doctor Zhivago” (1965) feeling here, and to be completely honest, “Knight Without Armour” could have been an unbelievable film with another 30 to 40 minutes of story scattered throughout (especially during the last reel). My own personal love affair with “Doctor Zhivago” illustrates my longing desire to have drawn-out epic romances, and perhaps that is part of the allure here, but I don’t see how more of any aspect of this film could possibly be a considered a negative.

Her (2013)- Spike Jonze

 ★★★★★

 

Throughout my conversations with fellow film enthusiasts over the years, I have often come across those who will scoff at the idea of King Kong and Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) being one of the greatest film romances. If you find that you fall into this category of scoffers, perhaps Spike Jonze’s latest cinematic endeavor, “Her,” (2013) is not the film for you. True, there are no large, savage apes attempting to woo Miss Darrow in this film, but the unlikely romance between a seemingly ordinary man and his sultry, intelligent operating system does prove to be just as complicated…and just as sweet.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is an average, intelligent man, living in Southern California, at some point in the not-so-distant future. He is a sad, lonely man, trying to come to terms with his separation and pending divorce from his life-long love, Catherine (Rooney Mara).  He works as a surrogate card writer for those who are unable to find the right words to talk to their loved ones, but since his life has begun spiraling downward, he finds that he lacks some of his lyrical creativity from the past.

Her (2013)

In order to bring some order back into his life (or perhaps just to break up the monotony of evenings spent playing video games and having phone sex with random women), Theodore gets himself an operating system who calls herself Samantha (seductively voiced by Scarlett Johansson). There is an instantaneous connection between Theodore and Samantha, but (for obvious reasons) neither of them are quite sure how to move their relationship forward. Theodore embraces his new love, but is wary of the long-term complications that come attached. He does feel somewhat better after sharing the true facts of his new girlfriend with his long-time friend and neighbor, Amy (Amy Adams), who sees the advantages to Theodore’s situation, whilst experiencing marital problems of her own.

The numerous problems that come from having an actual relationship with an operating system seem obvious, but it’s not that simple. After all, every argument that one can make for why it doesn’t work can be thrown right out the window the moment that you see the way Theodore lights up when he hears Samantha’s voice, and by the joy that they share just being together.Her (2013) I can’t sit here and say that it isn’t weird to watch them evolve as a couple, but I would be lying to say that I wasn’t rooting for their love to last.

Of course there are three, somewhat simple reasons, that watching this film and these characters is so easy to do. Firstly, we have the great Joaquin Phoenix. There are a handful of actors working today that possess the dedication and ability to pull off any role at any time, and Phoenix is one of them. So much of this film requires him to sit, or stand, or walk somewhere while talking to Samantha, but the only thing that he can play off of is her voice. There are no eyes to stare into as he tenderly speaks his lines, no mouth to kiss while he lies in bed. He is alone, even when he is with her. In one of many famous scenes in the classic “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), actress Lina Lamont (Jean Hagan) yells to her director that it’s hard to face the microphone while playing her love scene because, “Well, I can’t make love to a bush!” Perhaps Lina can’t, but Joaquin Phoenix sure can. I don’t even know where he would begin to prepare for a role such is this, and the fact that he makes it looks so easy is a true credit to himself as an actor.

Her (2013)

The second reason is filmmaker extraordinaire Spike Jonze. Love his films or hate them, you have to appreciate his creative abilities. His stories, characters, direction, dialogue, and even his song this time around (The Moon Song) all come from a creative place that most of us will never be able to fathom. He is a true visionary at a time when the cinematic world needs his gift dearly, and “Her” is just his latest in a line of immensely creative films, but it is also his best.

And then lastly we have Scarlett Johansson. Well, not Scarlett herself, but her voice anyway. I have always been of the opinion that voice acting doesn’t fall into the same league as physical acting. Even the best of voice performances can’t capture the same kind of passion and intensity, right? Wrong. In fact I couldn’t have been more wrong. Scarlett Johansson plays a character that is basically trying to prove that she is more than just a voice, and that is exactly what she has done. She is not a just a voice, she is a character, and a well-played one at that.

Her (2013)

“Her” is not a film for everyone, although I think everyone could take something from “Her”. In a world that continues to put technological progress on the front burner, it is not hard to imagine Theodore and Samantha’s world one day becoming a reality. And if their world can be real, so can their unusual, but unorthodox love. And all without any tragic end atop the Empire State Building.

Dishonored (1931)- Josef von Sternberg

 ★★★

 

Not all of director Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich’s seven collaborations are great films. They had their ups and downs like anyone, but the one thing you can always count on from their films is a high quality in their individual crafts.Dishonored (1931) “Dishonored” (1931) isn’t one of their best films, but neither Marlene nor von Sternberg are really to blame. Their work here (as we have come to expect) is impeccable. It’s the story, or rather the lack of depth to the story, that is the real problem.

“Dishonored” revolves around an Austrian woman (Marlene Dietrich) completely loyal to her country after the death of her husband during WWI. The Austrian Secret Service Chief (Gustav von Seyffertitz) poses as a regular man, earning himself an invitation back to her home, in an attempt to see if  she has any inkling to become a traitor. Not only does she thwart his attempt, she has him arrested. Convinced that her loyalty to her country, combined with her beauty and hypnotic sexual energy, is exactly what he requires, the Chief exposes his true identity and convinces her to become an Austrian spy, know only as X27.

Her first assignment involves an Austrian Colonel (Warner Oland) who is a suspected traitor.Dishonored (1931) X27 proves her seductive powers are more than enough to get the job done, and she is moved on to a bigger assignment involving a Russian Colonel (Victor McLaglen). Things begin well for her, but after spending some time with the Colonel, X27 has a hard time carrying out her orders.

It’s not that the story is really that bad, it’s just not very original, even for 1931. The script has nothing very interesting to add to the slow, tedious plot, and there are several points that it isn’t difficult to begin to lose interest. That, however, is when Josef von Sternberg works his magic. It’s his ability to pull together all the seemingly superfluous pieces of this production, and still make a film worth watching. He knows better than most how to frame a character, especially Marlene. The lighting in a von Sternberg movie has a life all of its own. Every glint of an eye can be exciting, every dissolve (yes, even the drawn out ones) adds a life to the film. What could quickly become a movie that will put you to sleep, is instead transformed into something intriguing and exciting.Dishonored (1931) The cinematography by Lee Garms is also a much inspired piece of work, and it’s is his ability to work with von Sternberg toward a shared vision that helps complete the visual splendor.

Of course it would be a great injustice to not give a fair amount of credit to Marlene Dietrich, as well. After all, the entire film revolves around her, and without an actress that can be convincing, even von Sternberg couldn’t save this film from disaster. (Perhaps one of the reasons his career went downhill is because they stopped making films together.) Marlene completely embodies everything about her character, X27. She is extremely sexy, sassy, confident, manipulative, cunning, and strong. These men are no match for her and her various charms, not to mention her legs. She owns everyone, and plays with them like putty in her hands, as illustrated in the last scene with the young Lieutenant (Barry Norton). It’s not hard to believe that there is nothing that X27, or Marlene herself couldn’t accomplish if she really wanted too.

Dishonored (1931)This was only the third of Dietrich and von Sternberg’s seven films together, and as they continued their ongoing partnership, they continued to capitalize on the same stunning aspects of their films- mostly Marlene Dietrich being placed on a pedestal, while the world revolved around her. The stories themselves always seem to be the weakest point of each and every one of their movies, but they all still have much to offer, and even a few, such as “The Blue Angel” (1930), “Shanghai Express” (1931), and “The Scarlet Empress” (1934), have something substantial to share, leaving a lasting memory with their audience.

Cleopatra (1963)- Joseph L. Mankiewicz

 ★★★★★

 

“Cleopatra” (1963) is a very good movie- in fact it’s basically two very good movies. When director Joseph L. Mankiewicz tried to convince the big-wigs at Twentieth Century Fox to split this into two separate films, he was probably on the right track. Epic doesn’t even begin to describe the overall production; in fact there isn’t a word that accurately Cleopatra (1963)describes the production of this film. That is why today, when a movie has a grandiose feel- or even when the making of a movie gets out of control, we instantly begin to compare it to “Cleopatra”.

So what went wrong, and why is this film regarded by many to be a waste of time? Is this really such a bad film, or is it just a long one? When you look- and I mean really look at this film, what is it that is so bad? When examining (or re-examining) “Cleopatra”, the first aspect that must be dissected is the story itself. Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) his been victorious in his campaign over Pompey. Caesar pursues Pompey upon his retreat to Alexandria, where Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII (Richard O’Sullivan) and his sister, Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor), are vying for the throne. Caesar, displeased that Ptolemy has had Pompey killed, ends up siding with Cleopatra and disposing of Ptolemy.

Cleopatra (1963)

With the throne hers, Cleopatra sets her sights higher by producing a son and heir for Caesar, one who could rule absolutely, above all others. Of course, as virtually everyone knows, the Roman Senate, and even Brutus himself, cannot allow this to happen, and on the Ides of March, 44 B.C. Julius Caesar is murdered.Cleopatra (1963)

Caesar’s loyal friend, Marc Antony (Richard Burton), along with Caesar’s nephew, Octavian (Roddy McDowall), begin a campaign to destroy all those involved in Caesar’s death. After they are victorious in their righteous endeavor, the land is divided, but there is also bad blood between them, yet to be sorted out. Antony needs help and knows that Cleopatra could be his answer. Unlike the relationship between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra that seems to be mostly based on status and mutual gain, Antony and Cleopatra have an attraction and chemistry that blindly leads Antony against all reason and good judgment. His decisions become based on his desires, thus causing the downfall of himself, and his chance to be victorious again.

Cleopatra (1963)

Well you can’t fault anyone on the story aspect of this film because it is about as intriguing as they come. It also happens to be one of the most accurate life to screen adaptations in memory, and we known how hard that is to do when Hollywood gets involved. “Cleopatra” isn’t filled with a bunch of fake scenes involving epic battles that didn’t really happen or subplots that never existed.Cleopatra (1962) This is what happened. These are the real events. With the exception of a few minor, mostly insignificant deviations, we are given the real story of the life and times of the last Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, Cleopatra.

So if there is nothing wrong with the story, what about the acting? Among the nine Academy Awards for which “Cleopatra” was nominated, only one was for acting, and that was a Best Actor nomination for Rex Harrison. Perhaps it was the heated, public affair of Burton and Taylor that caused their omission from the nominees that year, but I for one can’t believe that it was because their performances weren’t considered great. Burton’s ferocity as Antony shows off some of his best work in a role that is unlike many others in his career. His passion exudes from within, filling the screen with both emotion and heartache.Cleopatra (1963) Elizabeth Taylor plays the role of Cleopatra with a confidence and inspiration that few actresses have ever possessed. She is magnificent to behold, with the beauty and elegance of a queen, effortlessly combined with the sting of a femme fatale from a 1950’s film noir. The lack of nominations for both of these screen icons, is an unforgivable oversight, but as bad as their omission is here, they are not the only ones. Roddy McDowall gives a stellar performance as Octavian, and was also deserving of recognition, but due to an “oversight”, he too was denied a nomination. It seems (for some ridiculous reason) that McDowall was submitted as a contender in the Best Actor category, instead of the more obvious, and better suited Best Supporting Actor category.

Cleopatra (1963)

“Cleopatra” did however secure other nominations and victories at the Academy Awards. It won four awards for Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects, Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction. I don’t think any of these categories need defending, as each and every one (especially the costumes with 65 different ones for Cleopatra alone)Cleopatra (1963) are as near to perfection as it gets.

So I ask again, why is this not a great film? I  have come to the conclusion (despite my previous claims) that it is a great film. Sure you can point out that the production was plagued with problems, both physical and financial. Yes, it lost money and nearly destroyed one of the most prolific movie studios in the world, but I for one refuse to judge (or at least try not to judge) a film by anything more than what I see on the screen, and I can find very little to complain about while watching “Cleopatra”.

So then we have finally arrived at the topic that people most like to discuss: the film’s running time. Yes, 248 minutes makes for a long movie. I see no need to argue that there aren’t scenes that could be deleted, or areas that could be trimmed. As I said at the beginning of my ramblings, this would have made two excellent movies. Cleopatra (1963)What it comes down to is that if you tried to take out enough of the story to cut the film down to 170 or even 190 minutes, it would appear (and rightfully so) thrown together and incoherent. The story needs these scenes and dialogue, it needs the slow-paced story to increase the drama and intensity. What is doesn’t need are long, drawn out battles sequences every thirty minutes, because those (quite honestly) aren’t important to this particular story on any level, which is why they were left out, thus opening countless arguments that “Cleopatra” is boring. This is not just an epic, it’s a romantic epic that is reliant on the dialogue carefully written and performed, and the passion that is expressed between the films stars. Nothing else is needed.

Cleopatra (1963)

If someone doesn’t want to sit through 248 minutes of romance, betrayal and drama, then obviously this is not the film for them, but to write off “Cleopatra” simply because, “It’s too long,” is unfair and a mistake. Sometimes being patient does pay off in the end. Besides, if you don’t like sports movies, you don’t watch them, right? If you find gangster movies to be too violent, you avoid them. So if you know that long movies aren’t your thing- just know to keep your distance on this one.
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The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)- Frank Capra

 ★★★★

 

Frank Capra and Barbara Stanwyck made a great team. He was one of the revolutionary directors who was thrilled to make the adjustment from silent to sound films, with the education and the technical know withal to think outside the box, paving the way for all of the followers lining up behind him. She was to become one of the greatest movie stars of all time, with Capra being the perfect man to give her career a lift at just the right moment. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)Not that she would really need help to become the icon that she did, but Capra’s films clearly got her there faster. Their first collaboration, “Ladies of Leisure” (1930), was only her third credited role, but it propelled her to the ranks of stardom- a status that she would never relinquish. They ended up making five films together, ending with what is probably their most watched film, “Meet John Doe” (1941). It is these first four, however- these “under-the-radar” pictures that are the more noteworthy and aberrant; particularly when considering the timing of their release. Sound films came on the scene in 1927, and by 1934 the Hayes Code was in full effect, leaving only seven years for the filmmaking pioneers to make talking films with the freedom in which great directors (including Capra) always seem to thrive. That is when Stanwyck and Capra got together to create these other four movies, which in addition to “Ladies of Leisure “, also included “The Miracle of a Woman” (1931), “Forbidden” (1932) and today’s topic,“The Bitter Tea of General Yen” (1933).

The story, based on the novel by Grace Zaring Stone, takes place in the 1920’s, during the height of the Chinese Civil War. A ruthless warlord, General Yen The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)(Nils Asther), is in control of things in Shanghai. His situation only appears to be improving as his chief financial advisor (Walter Connolly) informs him that he was recently able to gather up six million dollars for Yen’s personal “war chest”.

On the other side of town, safe from the fires that are destroying much of city, American missionary Bob Strike (Gavin Gordon) is about to get married to his childhood sweetheart, Megan (Barbara Stanwyck). She just arrived in China, and hasn’t seen her fiance in three years. Their wedding, however, has to be postponed as Bob feels morally compelled to travel into the hazardous zone to save a group of children stranded at an orphanage. Megan goes along with her soon to be husband, who first must stop by and see General Yen, in order to obtain a pass to make it safely through the war-torn area. Yen, however, does not comply, instead giving him a worthless piece of paper that he claims is a pass, thus guaranteeing the failure of their mission.

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)While trying to get the children to safety, Megan gets knocked unconscious while at a train station and becomes separated from Bob. She is seen, however, by General Yen who recognizes her from an earlier chance meeting. Yen takes her on his private train to his summer palace where she will “be safe”. When Megan awakens, she is being cared for by Yen’s concubine (Toshia Mori), who also happens to be a spy working against Yen. While staying at his luxurious home, Megan and Yen develop an unusual interest in each other. She becomes sexually attracted to him (including a particularly erotic dream). Yen begins to trust her blindly, even though he is aware that this trust is a bad idea.

At times it’s melodramatic, at others down-right moving, but the interesting thing is that it doesn’t lack in any area. Frank Capra has created a masterfully woven story with his directing being some of the best from any of his early films. He shies away from nothing, as his camera boldly travels throughout the well designed sets to reveal a highly exhilarating and sexually charged drama.The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) The costumes are magnificent, Edward Paramore’s screenplay is superb and the cinematography by Joseph Walker is inspiring, culminating into a full-service film watching experience.

The acting in particular is spectacular, with Stanwyck being as brilliant in exactly the way we have come to expect. She seems to have an ability to take these basic, uncomplicated characters, and make them far more interesting and emotional than they would seem on paper. Swedish actor Nils Asther pulls off the villainous General Yen with the greatest of ease. He is brutal and cold, but after meeting Megan you can actually see the transformation occur, leaving him a vulnerable, unselfish man, with only remnants of his war lord life being remembered as vague recollections from days long forgotten. The show-stealer, however, is the elegant Toshia Mori, who with limited screen time manages to be Stanwyck’s equal- something that so many actresses would attempt to do from this point on. Mori didn’t continue to have a flourishing career in Hollywood, but not because of a  lack of talent, as is evident when watching this movie.

Some directors have an emotional connection to their stars. This on-film “love affair” with their own personal screen goddesses always seems to work to the advantage of the beautiful ladies that become illuminated by the directors that worship them so much.The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) It worked for Greta Garbo and Clarence Brown, it worked for Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg, it worked with Grace Kelly and Alfred Hitchcock, and it worked for Stanwyck and Capra. His appreciation for her talent and beauty is what makes their films together so memorable and special. He takes every possible opportunity to showcase her to the audience. Because it was important to him, it becomes important to us- shaping her performance in each film (and her career) into something larger than life.

“The Bitter Tea of General Yen” is a patient film that focuses of the characters and their stories. It doesn’t try to do too much or be anything that it’s not. Perhaps that is why some find it to be slow-paced or dull. It is the subtle beauty of the film, however, made with a precision to capture a time, a place and the love of two people as realistically as possible that helps it succeed on all counts.