The Good Earth
Directed by Sidney Franklin
Written by Talbot Jennings, Tess Slesinger, and Claudine West based upon the novel by Pearl S. Buck
Wang Lung: Revolution ? What is revolution ?
Unidentified laborer: I don’t know but it has something to do with food.
Something about MGM’s worthy, big-budget adaptation of the Pearl Buck novel about Chinese peasants just rubs me the wrong way.
Peasant farmer Wang Lung’s (Paul Muni) marriage to freed slave O-Lan (Luise Ranier) gives him and his father an extra pair of willing hands and provides them with added prosperity and sons. After several years of back-breaking labor, the family amasses enough money to acquire additional land. But famine comes, driving them to near-starvation and forcing them to flee the countryside to seek work in the city. As their predicament is shared by millions, there is no work. Throughout everything, O-Lan’s many sacrifices help the family to persevere.
Finally, an army of republican revolutionaries enters the city and riots break out. During the riots, O-Lan stumbles on a fortune and is nearly killed twice. The family is able to return to the land. In no time, Wang starts acting like a rich mandarin. As he becomes estranged from the land and O-Lan, his world begins to fall apart. A swarm of locusts threatens to finish the job. With Charlie Grapewin as Wang’s father, Walter Connelly as his lazy, grasping Uncle, Tilly Losch as a concubine, and Keye Luke as his adult elder son.
This should have been a tear-jerker about suffering but triumphant womanhood and I am susceptible to such stories. Yet I emerge dry-eyed from The Good Earth.
The first problem is that, for all the money that went into creating a realistic Chinese setting, it is simply impossible to suspend my disbelief and lose myself in this movie’s China. These actors are not only not Chinese nor Asian but are possibly the most non-Chinese Caucasian players that could have been procured. Walter Connelly, whom I generally adore, is particularly ludicrous. Luise Ranier’s and Tilly Losch’s Austrian accents don’t add to their believability. (Why is it that American or British accents don’t get in the way for me?).
Muni himself said he was about as Chinese as Herbert Hoover. Poor Anna May Wong wanted deeply to play O-Lan but that was out as soon as Muni was cast because of “miscegenation” concerns in the Hayes Code. (Why was it OK for two white actors to produce Chinese children?!)
The second huge problem I have with the film is Luise Ranier’s Academy-Award-winning performance. O-Lan speaks very little so much of the acting must be done with the face and eyes. I tried to love Ranier but it was hard to credit her open-mouthed, dazed expression as acting. I don’t know whether the director or she thought that it made her look more Chinese or that they thought that it made her look “simple” (as it did) or submissive. For me, It just did not portray the inner strength of a woman who would send her children to beg or risk a firing squad so that her family could survive.
The production values are everything that could be expected from a picture with one of the highest budgets to that time and that took three years to make.
This was the last picture Irving Thalberg produced. The film is dedicated to his memory in the opening titles. Luise Rainer won an Academy Award for Best Actress and Karl Freund picked up a Best Cinematography Oscar. The Good Earth was nominated for Best Director,Best Film Editing and Best Picture.