Throughout the first handful of years in which Capra emerged as the top director for then-minor league studio Columbia Pictures under Harry Cohn, the director churned out middling, creaky melodramas, newsroom comedies and aviation epics - all of them financially successful.
Nevertheless, Capra admittedly wanted to break into the mold of prestigious, awards-caliber filmmakers, and thus The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) became that project that would bring Capra prestige, awards and an audience.
Although The Bitter Tea of General Yen is, from this seat, Capra's most sophisticated, artful and complete work to date, it was also his least successful and most controversial. The story of an American missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) who is initially held captive by a General (Nils Asther) in war-torn China before submitting to his will and his wisdom, the film was highly contested and dismissed due to its deviant depiction of an interracial romance.
Essentially a Beauty and the Beast-like tale, and based on a story by Grace Zering Stone, The Bitter Tea of General Yen works because of the clashing ideals and cultures between Stanwyck's hypocritical missionary and General Yen's stiff, rough demeanor masking an affectionate, selfless persona. Even if it doesn't reach the tragic heights and emotional crescendos of a great work, it's such a step above Capra's early studio-age material that it can't help but be commended.
The Bitter Tea of General Yen was the film that opened the Radio City Music Hall on January 11, 1933 for a two-week run. It only played for eight days. Capra's quest for critical notoriety and artful prominence postponed.