The Bitter Tea of General Yen is the oddest, least characteristic talkie effort of director Frank Capra. Barbara Stanwyck stars as the intended of an American missionary (Gavin Gordon) who is sent to spread the good word in China.
During a military revolution, Stanwyck and her fiance inadvertently wander into forbidden territory while trying to help a group of orphans escape. The couple is forcibly detained by elegant warlord General Yen (played by Swedish actor Nils Ashter), who relies upon the financial advice of drunken American expatriate Walter Connolly.
Yen is overcome with desire at the sight of Stanwyck; at first repulsed by his attentions, Stanwyck finds herself strangely drawn in by his charisma. When everyone but Connolly deserts Yen when he needs them most, Stanwyck offers to stay behind with the General.
Fearing that he will never be able to truly attain the woman he so loves, the honorable General Yen commits suicide by drinking poisoned tea rather than put her in harm's way.
The one scene that everyone remembers takes place during one of Stanwyck's fevered dreams, in which she imagines Yen as a Fu Manchu-type rapist, who then melts into a gentle, courtly suitor.
Directed with the exotic aplomb of a Josef von Sternberg by the usually down-to-earth Frank Capra, The Bitter Tea of General Yen was unfortunately a box office failure, due in great part to its miscegenation theme (this was still 1933). Even so, the film was chosen as the first attraction at the new Radio City Music Hall.