Wednesday, 1 June 2011

makeup in The Bitter Tea of General Yen

From online blog 'iwillnotloveyoulongtime' -
A Swede playing an "Oriental," if you will. When did this become unacceptable? WHY was it acceptable? I'm just so confused... 

...Asian characters were portrayed predominantly by white actors, often while artificially changing their looks with makeup in order to approximate East Asian facial characteristics.
These portrayals are considered an example of the racism in the United States and overt racism common to the times.

General Yen was the big casting problem. I knew what I did not want -- a well-known star made up as an Oriental. I looked for a tall, overpowering, real Chinese. But there were no tall Chinese in casting directories, or even in laundries; most Chinese-Americans were short Cantonese. After many interviews we settled on a not-too-well-known Swedish actor, Nils Asther. He was tall, blue-eyed, handsome; spoke with a slightly pedantic "book" accent; his impassive face promised the serenity and mystery of a centuries-old culture.

Nils Asther

 Photoplay movie magazine, 1932?

But how could we make a Swede look Oriental? His blue eyes would photograph steel-gray in black-and-white film. That was an unusual plus. But what about the slant of his eyes? The prevailing method of "changing" Caucasian eyes into Oriental ones was to stretch and tape the outer ends of the eyes back toward the ears, fooling practically nobody. Besides which the actors looked more hideous than Oriental. There must be a better, more natural way. There was.

Closely studying Chinese features, I noticed two major differences between Oriental and Caucasian eyes: One, the upper Oriental eyelid is smooth and almost round, lacking the crease, or fold, of the Caucasian eyelid; and two, Oriental eyelashes are much shorter than Western eyelashes. We followed up the two clues: The make-up man covered Nils Asther's upper eyelids with smooth, round, false "skins", and clipped his eyelashes to one-third their natural length. Without adding any other make-up, we made photographic tests of Asther's face. On the screen he looked strange -- unfathomable. The stiff, upper eyelids kept his eyes in a permanent, half-closed position. Of a certain he was not a Caucasian -- and his face looked natural, uncontorted! Bedecked in rich Mandarin costumes, and a fez-like, black, tall skullcap for added height, Asther could pass for an awe-inspiring warlord. 

Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther

I added one final touch: an eccentric walk--long slow strides with both his long arms moving back and forth together--in parallel--with each stride. By keeping the camera low to accentuate height, Nils Asther became General Yen--ruthless, cultured, mysterious, and devastatingly attractive.

Frank Capra, Nils Asther, Barbara Stanwyck 

Toshia Mori, Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther

Nils Asther, Toshia Mori, Walter Connolly

Walter Connolly, Nils Asther, Barbara Stanwyck, Richard Loo

The Motion Picture Production Code was the set of industry moral censorship guidelines that governed the production of the vast majority of United States motion pictures released by major studios from 1930 to 1968. It is also popularly known as the Hays Code... 

The code was divided into two parts. The first was a set of "general principles" which mostly concerned morality. The second was a set of "particular applications" which was an exacting list of items which could not be depicted. Some restrictions, such as the ban on homosexuality or the use of specific curse words, were never directly mentioned but were assumed to be understood without clear demarcation. Miscegenation, better known as the mixing of the races, was forbidden.

David Palumbo-Lui, Asian/American: historical crossings of a racial frontier, Stanford University Press, 1999
Such substitutions (such as the playing of a Chinese man by the Swedish Nils Asther) helped directors skirt the anti-miscegengation clauses in the Hollywood code... most Hollywood films used whites to play Asians. 

The Hays Code banned mixed-race relationships in movies from 1930 - 1968. 
One motive in using white actors in makeup was to skirt this ban.

But the unintended hybridity created in staging Yen not as a racial hybrid but a cultural one produced the specter of something different... Yen was, as noted before, eminently "westernised", and yet able to function as Chinese as well. One reviewer found it hard to believe that a man such as Yen could even exist: 

"The Chinese warlord around whom the plot is built is a curious and rather questionable human composition of a poet, philosopher and bandit. He speaks rather fluent English and essays somewhat dainty American mannerisms... Customers may wonder about such a conglomerous combination of a man." (link)

The casting of Asther as an Asian produces inadvertently an image of the hybrid... Capra was looking for an "overpowering" figure to play Yen, which seemed to run counter to the "actual" Chinese he could see around him (or whom he imagined to populate the laundries of Los Angeles.) Instead, he manufactured one to fit his mind's eye from non-Asian material. The elements that were essential to the characterisation of Yen must be seen as derived from a particular formula that merged the western and the Asian. Crucially, Capra did not want a well-known American to play the role. In casting the Swedish actor Asther, Capra created a particular kind of foreign hybrid. Asther's "pedantic 'book' accent" signals specifially European breeding, and worked well to underline the notion that Yen had received such an education. Nevertheless, this Swede possessed a "passivity" that could be decoded as "oriental".

Photoplay movie magazine, 1932
David Sterrit at TCM - 
Like others connected with the picture, Stanwyck blamed its poor box-office showing on racist backlash. McBride quotes her as saying, "The women's clubs came out very strongly against it....I was so shocked. [Such a reaction] never occurred to me, and I don't think it occurred to Mr. Capra when we were doing it."
The film did poorly after complaints about its inter-racial relationship.
- but promotional posters like can't have helped.

New York Times, review from 1933
Mr. Asther's make-up is impressive, with slanting eyes and dark skin. He talks with a foreign accent. This General Yen endeavors to win the attractive American girl's affection.

Variety, review from 1932 - 
Barbara Stanwyck is the white girl. Pleasant enough and for the first half where she repulses the Chinaman gathers some audience sympathy... After the Chinese general goes on the make for the white girl the picture goes blah. That's before the film is even half way.
Walter Connolly, Nils Asther, Barbara Stanwyck

Media Resources Centre, UC Berkley
"The Hays Office...received complaints from unnamed sources about the portrayal of missionaries in the film. In a 1950 memo to PCA Director Joseph I. Breen, PCA staff members advised that "it would be well if the company [Columbia] would drop its plans to reissue this picture." The memo stated: "Probably the most objectionable characterization is that of the American financial advisor to the General, played by Walter Connolly. He is a completely unscrupulous character without morals or ethics. This does not seem to be a good portrayal of an American in the Orient to be circulated at this time." The staff members also objected to the portrayal of the missionaries, stating that they were "shown to be somewhat silly and ineffectual," and asserted that there was "a very questionable element of the heroine offering herself sexually to the General."" 

It goes without saying that the movie flopped (and inspired some openly racist reviews). Even being selected as the first motion picture ever to play Radio City Music Hall didn’t help. Capra later felt it was one of his very best films, and he was right, but it didn’t secure him the Oscar he so desperately wanted. 

The Men Who Made the Movies, Richard Schickel, Atheneum, New York, 1975, page 70 - 
Frank Capra: “The warlord said all the things that needed to be said about miscegenation, about racism. And I felt that this woman had depth enough to understand. She was so bigoted [at first]. And this reformation of this character from a bigot to one who could love anybody – why, this was an honest story to me.

from Megan's dream sequence

1 comment:

  1. this is amazing, thank you, thank you

    from Paris, France