Call#: Van Pelt Library PN1995.9.M57 C38 2005
Susan Courtney’s third chapter, “Coming to Terms with the Production Code," examines how miscegenation was regarded by censors during the pre-code years and attempts to trace the exact origins of the “miscegenation clause” included in the Production Code of 1930. Courtney notes that the clause’s exact wording -- “Miscegenation (sex relationships between white and black races) is forbidden” – originally appeared in the “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” of 1927, and remained relatively un-amended until the code as a whole was gradually abandoned in the 1950s. Courtney posits that there was no single source that led to the inclusion of the miscegenation clause (in other words, there was no specific individual or demographic that found miscegenation particularly objectionable); rather, the clause emerged out of consultations conducted by the Hays Office with local or state censor boards across the country, suggesting a more widespread cultural aversion to the inclusion of interracial mixing in film.
In regards to Bitter Tea, this book supplies a significant contextual understanding of how the interracial themes pivotal to the film’s plot would have been received by censors and audiences alike. Courtney notes that the actual enforcement of the miscegenation clause was very unclear, explaining how a film like Bitter Tea could have easily passed muster with American censors. Because the miscegenation clause only makes mention of “blacks and whites," films involving Asian-American interactions were to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Several movies, including “Congai” and “Shanghai Gesture", were never produced because of the inclusion of Asian-American miscegenation, whereas other films seemed to be judged according to a qualified version of the clause that would permit such relations so long as their interactions were limited to “fantasies and identities."
Santaolalla, Isabel C. "East is East, and West is West? Otherness in Capra's The Bitter Tea of General Yen." Literature Film Quarterly, 1998.
Santaolalla’s article provides a more symbolic framework for Bitter Tea, suggesting that the story is an allegory for Megan’s descent into an unconscious realm of anarchical desire that she has repressed because of her submission to a strict set of patriarchal Judeo-Christian beliefs. This, Santaolalla’s postulates, is indicated by the theme of dreaming and fantasy, which is recurrent throughout the movie. The second half of the movie takes place in Yen’s summer garden house, which is sequestered way from the outside world, symbolizing a return to a primal, edenic state separate from “reality.” After Megan’s kidnapping into Yen’s world, Shanghai papers announce that she has died. Santaolalla suggests that this alludes to a symbolic death and transformation of Megan's character. Yen forces her to reconsider her role as a woman, as a Westerner and as a Christian missionary, all key elements that are central to her sense of identity. In the end, Megan decides she wants to willingly “give herself” to Yen, so she removes her puritanical garments in place for Yen’s concubine’s sensual and decadent jewels and clothing. In this literal sense, she undergoes a transformation.
This approach to Biter Tea is significant because it delves beyond a superficial understanding of the film as a mere melodrama, and attempts to track the development of the narrative on a psychological level. What is particularly curious about this reading is that, though Megan does undergo a transformation of sorts, the conversion of her character is never carried out satisfactorily. She never truly “gives herself” to Yen, because he kills himself so that their love can never be consummated, thus abruptly diminishing what the movie had been building up to from the very beginning. Perhaps this unsatisfying narrative accounts for the movie's failure to attract audiences.
Benshoff, Harry M and Griffin, Sean. America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
In chapter six of America on Film, Benshoff and Griffin provide commentary on the representation of Asians in Hollywood films during the silent film era and the “classical” 1930s Hollywood films. The chapter suggests that immigration legislation, like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1924, were indicative of pervasive Western prejudices and fears that were then perpetuated in popular film. Asians in movies were almost never represented as Asian-Americans but rather, as exoticized “orientals” living in exaggeratedly aestheticized foreign landscapes. Also, the roles of Asians in most films were filled by Western actors in “yellowface,” as was the case with General Yen’s character in Bitter Tea. The chapter also discusses at length two well-known Asian characters of early film history – Charlie Chan and Fu Man Chu. Both are characters of detective-genre film played by white actors, and both embody what is known as the “inscrutable Oriental” stereotype. Charlie Chan is akin to the classical Holmesian detective, but is more comical and often spews “old Chinese wisdom.” Fu Man Chu, similar to Chan in many regards, is an evil genius who exacts obscure and ghastly forms of “Chinese” torture on his unfortunate victims.
This chapter provided contextual information that is important to understanding the kinds of preconceptions viewers of the 1930s might have had about Chinese, or more generally Asian, culture. Was General Yen a character unique to film at the time of Bitter Tea’s release? He’s seems not to have been. In fact, his character fairly well suits the “inscrutable Oriental” stereotype discussed by Benshoff and Griffin, in that he is both shrewdly perceptive and intelligent, and at the same time, subtly menacing (as demonstrated by his brutally pragmatic indifference about executing his prisoners during times of economic crisis and famine). Yen, like Chan, says several cryptic “fortune-cookie” type maxims throughout the film. Even Mah-Li’s character, the wily concubine, seems to fit the description of another stereotyped character mentioned in the chapter called the Dragon Lady, a seductive and treacherous female spy who fools men with her sexual wiles.