Directed by Sidney Franklin
I read the novel The Good Earth for the first time when I was fourteen, which is longer ago than I’d like to admit. Even though I was so young, I felt the love and respect that Pearl S. Buck had for the people and culture of China, along with some of her criticism (which is fair, because no culture is perfect). I was nervous about watching this movie, because I wasn’t sure what Hollywood would do to such a sensitive book about such a different place. Although the filmmakers did make some horrifying decisions (more on that later), The Good Earth is both an excellent movie on its own and an excellent adaptation of the book, which is an incredibly difficult thing to do.
So what’s the story? Poor farmer Wang Lung marries O-lan, a mistreated slave from a wealthy household. For many years, they work side by side on his small farm, buying more land whenever they can scrape the money together to do so. They stick together through storms, famine, and locusts. When Wang forgets what is truly important in life, O-lan is there to remind him. (This is basically the storyline, but the movie is much more exciting and subtle than this summary makes it sound.)
The Good: Luise Rainer makes an excellent O-lan. O-lan is a very quiet, shy character; she never has much to say. Rainer finds O-lan’s soul and brings out her inner strength for the world to see. Her expressions and body language are incredible; they let the viewer get a glimpse of O-lan’s inner workings.
Paul Muni shows boyish delight as Wang. He takes pride in the beautiful things that are his – his farm, his wife, his children. He loves the land and all it gives him. When the land betrays Wang and later, when he becomes wealthy, Muni is able to show the despair and hubris Wang experiences. Yes, Wang has more to say than O-lan, but he, too, has his inner struggles.
The cinematography is exceptional. Karl Freund, the cinematographer, makes excellent use of light and shadow. The scene where O-lan is having her baby during a thunderstorm with lightning as the only light is incredible. Freund also does wonderful work with wide-angle lenses. The panoramic views of people travelling during the famine adds to the feeling of despair, while the views of the locusts make it seem like the entire world is about to end. It’s amazing.
I know I’m not supposed to compare movies to books, but there are so few good adaptations that I have to mention it when I see it. Yes, some things get left out, but that’s because no one wants to sit through a five hour long movie. The story that is left is rich and full and draws the viewer in. So maybe I’ll excuse my indulgence by saying The Good Earth has an excellent screenplay.
There was no Oscar for special effects in 1937, but if there had been, The Good Earth would have deserved it for the locust scene alone. It was frightening on the 19 inch screen I watched in on in 2017. It must have been terrifying on a big screen in 1937, when people weren’t jaded by the CGI monsters that are so common now.
The Bad: Most of the music is very stereotypically Chinese; it uses the “Oriental” chords to evoke the strangeness of China. However, I did like music during the scene where O-lan kills the bull. The sweeping chords and building melody were how heroism was often underscored in the 1930s, and it echoes the O-lan’s heroism in the face of starvation.
The makeup was sketchy. While the makeup artists did a fabulous job using makeup to age the characters, they did not do a great job of making Paul Muni and Luise Rainer look Asian, which leads us to…
The Ugly: Let’s talk about the whitewashing. Yes, Paul Muni and Luise Rainer were wonderful in their parts. I’m not going to blame them for starring in the movie. But I do have a problem with the fact that the prominent roles of Wang, O-lan, Wang’s father, Wang’s uncle, and Wang’s second wife, along with a few less-prominent characters, were not played by people of Chinese descent, or even people from other Asian countries. They were all white. I recognize that the Hollywood of the day would not have even auditioned actual Asians to star in a story about China even though there were plenty of Asians living in California, but it still bothers me. It still happens today in Hollywood, which doesn’t make a lot of sense, because there are lots of very good Asian-American actors to choose from. I would have like to have been able to see The Good Earth with actors of the proper race. Since I can’t, I hope Hollywood will get over itself and let Asians play Asians.
Oscars Won: Best actress in a leading role (Luise Rainer); best cinematography.
Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best director; best film editing.
Fun Fact: With her Oscar for this role, Luise Rainer became the first person to win Oscars for a leading role back-to-back.