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Bitter Tea of General Yen, The

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

In 1930, Hollywood adopted the Motion Picture Production Code (aka the Hays Code), as a way of ensuring that movies wouldn’t “lower the moral standards of those who see [them]”. Although the Code was formally adopted at that time, it would be another four years before the Code was rigidly enforced, as producers between 1930 and 1934 ignored the Code in favour of strong box office returns on movies with racy material. And one such movie that flouted the Code was The Bitter Tea of General Yen.

Its tale of a Chinese warlord and the fianceé of a Christian missionary who fall in love, the movie transgressed against several particulars of the Code, not the least of which was in its depiction of sexual passion. And while most of the posters made to advertise the movie were entirely sedate and gave no indication of the torrid goings-on between Barbara Stanwyck and Nils Asther, this one spells it out as boldly as possible, and leaves the potential viewer in no doubt as to what he or she can expect (if they’re lucky).

General Yen’s ethnicity has been toned down quite a bit, making Asther look more Central European than Chinese, but the title is a giveaway, and there’s also the military-style jacket to reinforce matters. As he approaches the prone character of Megan Davis, there are two very obvious reasons for his interest: her barely covered breasts. Seen today, this rather blatant attempt at prurience doesn’t have as much effect as it would have done back in 1933, but it’s still a bit of a surprise to see such an exposure of flesh so prominently displayed. It certainly gives a good indication of how racy the movie is likely to be – even if that particular image isn’t replicated in the movie itself – and it’s also a further indication that the Code was being flouted as often, and in as many ways, as possible.

A racy, sexually provocative depiction of an inter-racial relationship – unusual for the time – and a great example of how the studios ignored the Code, this poster has a terrific collision of colours and only one worrying aspect to the whole thing: just what has happened to Asther’s right hand?

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know.