“Buddha, Joan of Arc and the spirit of all who believe in God live in the White House,” Spencer Tracy was made to say in State of the Union, a dreadful film made by Frank Capra in 1948. It was the logical conclusion to the Sicilian immigrant’s admiration for America, which admittedly produced much better movies, such as It Happened One Night and Mr Deeds Goes to Town.
But even these affectionately remembered films look naive and sentimental now, despite the evident skill of their making. The former won Capra the Oscars he craved. He called them “my holy grail”. Shrewd and talented as he was, Capra’s espousal of the virtues of the little man reek of whimsy and wishful thinking and, though we were once taken in by their sheer entertainment value, they remain among American cinema’s most cosily absurd fables.
Not long after he made State of the Union, this somewhat unpleasing man was convinced that the America he once loved, and who had once loved his work, had been taken over by gays, druggies and draft dodgers. Unfortunately, he funked making a movie about that.
But, much earlier in his pretty long career, he did make one extraordinary film. It was called The Bitter Tea of General Yen, an exotic fable that showed him capable of what producer Harry Cohn called “the sort of arty junk that wins Oscars”. It was neither arty nor junk, but a very skilful adaptation of a novel about a prim New England girl (Barbara Stanwyck) who arrives in Shanghai to marry a tight-arsed missionary as civil war breaks out. Attempting to save some children, she gets knocked flat and wakes up in the train of a notorious Chinese warlord (Nils Asther).
Taken to his summer palace, and held by the fascinated infidel, she starts trying to convert him. But she also begins to dress in Chinese gowns and to fall in love with a surprisingly wise and courtly man. Alas, however, the the war turns against him and he poisons himself.
It is a tale made both credible and erotic by Capra’s cameraman Joe Walker, screenwriter Edward Paramore and Stanwyck, an actress it was always difficult to look away from (she seldom seemed so innocently beautiful as here). And we have to credit Capra too for seeing in it a kind of Jamesian intelligence, and playing that up together with the sexual connotations.
The film looks marvellous, almost in the Sternberg mould, with black and white lighting culled from special portrait lenses and the sort of richly textured decor that only MGM could contemplate at the time.
The dream sequence is particularly striking. The American girl sees a couple courting before retiring to bed. Her bedroom door is broken open by a threatening Chinese man, but she is saved by a masked man in western clothes. When he takes off his mask, we see that it is General Yen. They sink back on to the bed and she wakes from her dream to find the general standing above her.
It was only later that Capra began his patriotic Americana. Before that, he seemed capable of superbly crafted movies – an eclectic talent who turned into a careerist. We should perhaps not mock films like It Happened One Night. They were made in an era when Capra wasn’t the only one fooled by the American dream. But we should certainly regret that such a good film-maker ended up thinking that Buddha was likely to be comfortable in the White House.