The Bitter Tea of General Yen is an extraordinarily beautiful movie.
Capra, its director, intended the film as a serious project - "Art with a capital A," he described it as later, admitting it to be his open attempt at an Oscar. He was not to win an Academy Award until two years later, and with an entirely different film, the screwball It Happened One Night. Still, Capra was proud of it until the end of his career, saying it "has more real movie in it than any other I did."
Everything on the film was carefully arranged. Joseph Walker, the cinematographer, used a variety of lenses, including portrait lenses for the numerous, exquisite close-ups, and a diffusion device of his own design.
Matte paintings were also used lavishly. Often these mattes are so skilful that it's not apparent until a third or fourth viewing that there is even a painting there. These large-scale works were traditionally done in oil paints or pastels on glass and then combined with the live-action elements so the result blended seamlessly.
In The Bitter Tea of General Yen, the matte paintings were often combined with extra lighting to make them come alive. For example, in the night time scenes of civil war, there are fire effects, and when Megan (Barbara Stanwyck) looks out from General Yen's palace and sees couples by the river, it is softly illumined by lanterns and moonlight.
Megan (Barbara Stanwyck) and General Yen (Nils Asther) in the moonlight - a matte painting with lighting effects
Megan watches the lantern-lit revelries going on
in the square below from her high balcony at the palace
- the background being a matte painting
The people of Shanghai panic as the buildings catch fire,
shown using matte paintings with lighting effects
Rain effects as well as lighting help this matte painting come alive
Arrival at Yen's palace.
Even in bright daylight, the matte paintings in this film are so fine
they can easily be mistaken for the real thing.
The amazing interior of Yen's summer palace - again a matte painting
Information and images from:
Turner Classic Movies
Matte Shot Blogspot
Matte painting - Wikipedia
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