The story of a farmer in China: a story of humility and bravery. His father gives Wang Lung a freed slave as wife. By diligence and frugality the two manage to enlarge their property. But then a famine forces them to leave their land and live in the town. However it turns out to be a blessing in disguise for them...
Paul Muni ... Wang
Luise Rainer ... O-Lan
Walter Connolly ... Uncle
Tilly Losch ... Lotus
Charley Grapewin ... Old Father
Jessie Ralph ... Cuckoo
Soo Yong ... Aunt
Keye Luke ... Elder Son
Roland Lui ... Younger Son
Suzanna Kim ... Little Fool
Ching Wah Lee ... Ching
Harold Huber ... Cousin
Director: Sidney Franklin
Nominated for 3 Oscars. Won 2 Oscars for: Best Actress in a Leading Role, Best Cinematography
Codecs: XVid / MP3
I watched this movie with some curiosity. I wanted to see if 1) Paul Muni could play Chinese and 2) Luise Rainer deserved her Oscar. I came away from the film thinking YES! Having seen Muni in only one film where he was quite hammy, I expected the same type of performance here. I was happily proved wrong. Although some might criticize him as being too childlike and stereotypically simple in the Hollywood idea of Asians, I thought he was just right in the role. Keye Luke, if he'd been given the chance to play a lead role, might have played him in much the same manner.
I was particularly impressed by the camera work and the use of crowd scenes, especially during the sacking of the palace where O-Lan was once a slave. The graphic and grim atmosphere of the firing squad and the drought made this an epic quite unlike others of the same time where it was all glitz and glitter. I watched this film from beginning to end enthralled. I can't say the same for the "epics" of today.
In the 30s and 40s, MGM had a penchant for (then) contemporary Chinese-oriented stories ('The Son-Daughter', 'Dragon Seed', 'Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo', etc.), and whether this was a preference, or whether there were just a lot of Chinese-design sets to keep occupied at the studio, the results were strangely moving. 'The Good Earth' is of course the finest of its genre, for any number of reasons.
From the very beginning of the picture, right after the lion's roar, we see the poignant tribute to Irving Thalberg, and we know that we are embarking on an important viewing experience. The scope of the story is very wide, and the filmmakers are up for the task. I was always struck by the abruptness of the final scene, but its power and beauty form an excellent example of the art achieved within the often cynical Hollywood film factory. And Lotus - the strangeness of her, and her dance, contrasted with the goodness of O-lan!
Aside from the oft-mentioned attributes of acting, photography and special effects, a major element in 'The Good Earth' is the score. Herbert Stothart may not be in the ranks of Hollywood's 'mighty handful' (Alfred Newman, Steiner, Tiomkin, Waxman, Herrmann), but his 'MGM-sound' scores regularly deliver the goods. True, Stothart had no hesitation in applying the syrup at first opportunity (one can imagine Louis B. Mayer positively ordering it), but in this picture, syrup gives way to sympathy. One of the pleasures of Hollywood's Golden Age films is that all the elements of a given film support each other, and great scores support not only the characters, but the entire film. Stothart's score is so sympathetic and so sincere, from the Main Title all the way through, and it enhances the story and the performances so naturally and at times transparently, that it must be considered a classic score. No great 'tunes' specifically, but plenty of effective mood, atmosphere and unabashed emotion. Many of today's audiences may find little to enjoy in such a combination, or they may be embarrassed by it, but I revel in it, as cinema such as this, which is delivered with such heart and good will is, especially in these times, nothing short of a gift.
The issue of non-Chinese playing Chinese characters has already been discussed on these pages, but I can only add: please, viewers, consider the film within the era that it was produced. The same kind of incongruity still happens today, perhaps not so much racially, but certainly culturally: Brad Pitt in 'Seven Years in Tibet', Keanu Reeves in 'Little Buddha', and other Americans getting plum roles in British-originated stories that become Hollywoodized, etc. When making 'Bhowani Junction', George Cukor considered using Indian actors, but vetoed any candidates in favor of familiar Hollywood faces. Never mind that in the 50s, as today, India had a huge film industry. It's just that those actors didn't fit into the Hollywood scheme of things. That speaks of box office more than political incorrectness. There is no doubt that fine actors like Philip Ahn should have gotten lead roles in pictures like 'The Good Earth', but at least we can enjoy them in supporting roles which carry a lot of weight in their own right. As time goes on, the context of past eras fades, while the films themselves, the really good ones, live on. There's plenty of opportunity for revisionist theses about issues like racial inequality in 1930s Hollywood, but for 138 minutes, it is compelling and moving to absorb onesself in the story and the atmosphere of 'The Good Earth'.
This is where the term "classic film" comes from. This is a wonderful story of a woman's bravery, courage and extreme loyalty. Poor Olan got sold to her uncaring husband, who through the years learned to appreciate her. (Yeah right, A PEARL!!)
Luise Rainer was the beautiful star who had won the Best Actress Oscar the year before for her small role (and what a waste of an oscar) in "The Great Zigfield". It really didn't show what, if any, talent she had other than her exotic beauty. But in "Good Earth" she shows that she can really act! Her beauty was erased and she had no great costumes either. People say that she didn't show any real emotions in this film. Like hell. Her character Olan is a shy and timid woman, with inner strength. She is quiet during parts of the film with only her eyes and body to convey her emotions. Example: those scenes during the fall of the city and when looters were being shot. If you people are saying that she doesn't act well in this film, you are NOT looking!
Paul Muni shows that he can act as well. His character is not a likeable one to me. He never sees her for what she is, until the very end of the story. A sweet loving and dedicated wife and mother, with her own special beauty. The greatest one of all, the beauty from within, like a pearl.
If you get a chance to see this film, watch it. You will see one of the best films that the golden age of Hollywood created.
* When Irving Thalberg, MGM's production chief, negotiated with Warner Bros. to cast Paul Muni, Muni told him, "I'm about as Chinese as Herbert Hoover." Thalberg had to lend Clark Gable and Leslie Howard to Warners to secure Muni's services.
* The first time that Irving Thalberg's name appeared onscreen. The movie - the last one he produced--was dedicated to him "as his last great achievement."
* Irving Thalberg envisioned casting only Chinese actors for the movie, but gave up the idea because there were not enough suitable Chinese actors.
* Because the Sino-Japanese war was in progress, the Chinese government threatened not to approve the movie if any Japanese actors were cast in any role.
* James Stewart, who worked as a contract player in the 1930s, almost got the part of a Chinese man.
* Victor Adams, who was Paul Muni's stand-in, also played Wang Lung (Muni's character) in long shots when Muni went AWOL from the set.
* Special effects experts were unable to produce an authentic looking locust plague. Just as they were about to abandon the scene, they received word that a real locust plague was taking place several states away. A camera crew was rushed to the scene to capture it on film.
* The location shots in China were filmed by director George W. Hill for a movie that was later abandoned. Hill had died by the time this film went into production.
* For the second year in a row, Luise Rainer won a Best Actress Oscar, becoming the first performer to win two Academy Awards and the first to win two Oscars in two years.
* According to Peter Hay's 1991 book "When the Lion Roars", when MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer learned of production chief Irving Thalberg's desire to film Pearl S. Buck's novel about Chinese peasants, he told him, "The public won't buy pictures about American farmers, and you want to give them Chinese farmers?" Opposed by Mayer, Thalberg had to appeal to Nicholas Schenck, the chief executive of MGM parent Loew's Theaters Inc. and President of MGM, to make the film. Permission was given, but Thalberg never lived to see the film completed. This is the only film that bears a Thalberg producer credit.
* Sam Wood directed the "robbing of the big house" sequence, some retakes and other additional footage.
* The play by Owen Davis and Donald Davis, based on Pearl S. Buck's novel, opened in New York on 18 October 1933 with Claude Rains and Alla Nazimova in the lead roles.