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The Bitter Tea of General Yen was originally scheduled to be directed by Herbert Brenon and to star Constance Cummings as "Megan Davis" and Anna May Wong as "Mah-Li." It was the first picture shown at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The film provoked controversy with its theme of interracial love. For example, the Variety review stated, "Seeing a Chinaman attempting to romance with a pretty and supposedly decent young American white woman is bound to evoke adverse reaction."
According to information in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, there were complaints by Chinese officials stationed in Washington, D.C. about the scenes of the war prisoners and various lines such as "Human life is the cheapest thing in China." It appears that the war prisoner scenes were shortened through editing because of the complaints. The Hays Office also 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."
According to modern sources, Leo Carrillo, Leslie Banks and Chester Morris were variously selected to play "Yen" before Asther was chosen. Contrary to Capra's statement in his autobiography that the film was banned in Great Britain, contemporary sources confirm that the film was released there on May 22, 1933. Capra also mentions that part of the filming was done in the San Fernando Valley, CA. Joseph Walker, Capra's photographer, wrote in his autobiography that at his suggestion, the sets of this film were reused for One Night of Love, a 1934 Columbia film directed by Victor Schertzinger and starring Grace Moore (see below). Modern sources list the following additional crew credits: Costumes Edward Stevenson and Robert Kalloch; and Dialogue Director Gene Lewis.