Well, it really only wrecked a province...
Doesn't the poster just terrify you? Yes, yes it does. It strikes fear in my heart.
I was so bewildered by this movie. Everything about it screams... Well, I don't know what it screams, to be honest. It has the ability to leave one completely speechless (which is why I type these things).
"Human life is the cheapest thing in China... Don't be fooled by [the Chinese] looking civilized, they're all treacherous and immoral." (An actual line said in the film) Now if that's not enough to make you run for the hills, I don't know what is.
The film (based on the novel by Grace Zaring Stone) begins in China, during the Chinese Revolution. A white missionary girl, Megan Davis (played by Barbara Stanwyck) comes to China (Shanghai, not surprisingly) to marry her childhood sweetheart (played by Gavin Gordon) who is also a missionary. It is the night before their wedding when Megan's fiancé decides to delay the wedding to go rescue some orphans. Megan decides to go along. However, they need a pass from the "Oriental bandit" General Yen (portrayed in yellowface by Swedish Nils Asther) in order to reach the orphanage and rescue the kiddies. General Yen finds out that Megan's fiancé "prefers civil war to the arms of his loving bride." (More on this later...) This earns the fiancé quite a bit of ridicule at a check-in point along the road. They eventually get to a train station and prepare to send the kids off to safety. The fiancé gets into a rickshaw and goes off, but some dude clubs Megan Davis in the back of the head and she is kidnapped (oh my!) by General Yen, who takes her back to his "Summer Palace" via train. She also meets his concubine Mah-Li (Toshia Mori), his American financial advisor, Mr. Jones (Walter Connolly), and his Captain (Richard Loo). Initially, she wants to go home and doesn't fully comprehend what a monster Yen really is, until, of course, she wakes up one morning to the sounds of a firing squad outside her window. She then begs to go home but alas! Yen does not permit that, so he requests her presence at dinner, which she refuses three times. Then she goes out for a smoke on her patio and dreams about a slanty-eyed, long-fingernailed, drolling, bucktoothed, Fu Manchu-ed mustachioed Chinaman who is about to rape her when ta-da! General Yen saves the day and they kiss (Controversy controversy controversy!) Then she wakes up to see Yen standing before her, and they discuss the differences between American and Chinese culture (whoa). After Yen leaves, Megan sees that Yen's concubine, Mah-Li, is secretly in love with his Captain. Megan agrees to keep it a secret and the two become friends. She also finds out that Mah-Li has been acting as an informant to the rebels and for this, Yen sentences her to death. Megan then pleads for forgiveness and gives Yen a big speech on kindness and being a loving human being - which Yen soon pronounces as mumbo-jumbo. Then he offers to spare Mah-Li's life if Megan will remain his hostage. The Mah-Li betrays Yen to the rebels (again) and his army and servants all abandon his summer palace. Upon realizing this, he prepares to drink poisoned tea until Megan comes to his room, having realized that she is infatuated with him. She tells him of her devotion and breaks down crying. Then Yen drinks his poisoned tea and dies. The next scene is Yen's financial advisor Mr. Jones and Megan riding in a train car back to Shanghai, where, presumably, Megan will return to her fiancé. And credits roll.
Historical Context: The Hays Code regarding film censorship had not been passed yet, so this type of movie was perfectly legal; however, upon release, nobody went to see it because interracial love was too unbearable a thought. Despite the fact that it debuted at Radio City Music Hall (and being the first film to do so), it still didn't strike a positive chord with the American (or British) audiences. Babs Stanwyck herself said that "the women's clubs came out very strongly against it" (citation) and that this surprised her. Honey! The Chinese Exclusion Act wasn't even going to be repealed for another ten years - does that give you a little peek into the minds of the masses? If the Chinese weren't allowed to be citizens, don't you think they also wouldn't be allowed to fall in love with whites? Naïvete, much?
Then you take the role of Mah-Li, played by Toshia Mori (who is Japanese, not Chinese). Initially, the role was supposed to go to Anna May Wong (no surprises there) She plays the role of a butterfly/lotus blossom but she's really a dragon lady in disguise! Pretending to be all subservient one moment and then plotting to overthrow Yen the next? You could very stupidly yell "girl power!" right here, but a more appropriate phrase might be "Dragon Lady!" True, she's not pulling an Anna May Wong in "Shanghai Express," but hey! She's plotting and being stealthy and backstabbing Yen! She's dangerous - and she's sexy. She's a concubine, for crying out loud. Her role, thank goodness, is played by an actual Asian person - but does that make Mori's role into something good? A positive portrayal? I suppose we couldn't have asked for something better - it was 1933 after all. But there's something off about her character too. She's extremely quiet, demure, and subservient to everyone in the household. She's persistent and conniving, passing information to rebel sources. She abandons Megan after Megan saves her life and convinces Yen to cancel her execution. She's in cahoots with the rebels! While Mah-Li is at first portrayed to be the stereotypical butterfly, she soon becomes a semi-embodiment of the quote I listed waaay up at the top. She's treacherous. And this is bad. I had such hopes that she wasn't going to live up to that awful quote... And my dreams were shattered. So sad.
And the yellowface. You thought I'd forgotten, eh? Lies. I haven't. It's hard to forget a face like that. With that much makeup. How do I detest thee, O makeup on Nils Asther's face? Let me count the ways. The mustache. It's reminiscent of Fu Manchu's. It's giving me nightmares. Strike one. The slanted eyes. Oh, the slanted eyes. Looks like they've been taped pretty severely. And that's pretty self-explanatory. Strike two. The eyebrows. Apparently he shaved them off and then the makeup artists drew on new slanty ones. Strike three. And look at that expression! The dastardly, conniving evil man! Just looking at his face invites distrust! Do I need to elaborate how disgusting this trend is? Was? No! I need not! Just gaze at his face. This is a white guy. A Swede to be precise. A Swede playing an "Oriental," if you will. When did this become unacceptable? WHY was it acceptable? I'm just so confused...
Overall, this was one of the weirder movies I have seen. I can't even begin to describe it. It's not even a very technically appealing film - the shots are bland, the music is full of zithers and gongs and who knows what else, the acting is sub-par... It's all kinds of bad.