[Film Review] The Good Earth (1937)

The Good Earth poster

Title: The Good Earth
Year: 1937
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: Sidney Franklin
Talbot Jennings
Tess Slesinger
Claudine West
based on the novel by Pearl S. Buck
Music: Herbert Stothart
Cinematography: Karl Freund
Paul Muni
Luise Rainer
Walter Connolly
Charley Grapewin
Keye Luke
Roland Lui
Tilly Losch
Ching Wah Lee
Jessie Ralph
Victor Sen Yung
Rating: 7.7/10

The Good Earth 1937

In the eyes of a Chinese, THE GOOD EARTH, a Hollywood adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s famed eponymous novel, is a thudding novelty, and if it were to be made today, surely would come in for backlash of blatant white-washing, Caucasian actors comprise the main cast, playing indigenous Chinese people who uniformly articulate an American English, and distinctive in their exaggerated “Oriental-looking” eye makeup and other trappings.

Directed by Sidney Franklin, his penultimate director credit, since he would sink his teeth into a more eminent career as a producer soon after, THE GOOD EARTH is a major player in the Oscar race, nabbing five Oscar nominations and wins its star Luise Rainer, her second and consecutive Oscar win, and would become the longest-lived recipient in the acting branch (she passed away in 2014 at the age of 104), a record now has been challenging by Olivia de Havilland, also a two-time leading actress winner, who is three-months shy of her 101 birthday at the time of writing.

It takes some suspended disbelief for audience to accept it incongruous premise, but THE GOOD EARTH is an epic story presented by stunning mise en scène commendably recreating a rural China in the soil of California lot, and a state-of-the-art special effect team conjuring up elemental forces such as tempest, famine and locust plague, all to awe-inspiring effects. The story unfolds chronologically about a simple-minded farmer Wang Lung (Muni) who marries an obedient servant girl O-Lan (Rainer), in due days they will have three children and sail through the vagary of natural disasters and unexpected fortunes extending over two decades, during which Wang would derail from his humble roots when he is subjugated to wealth and lust, yet, O-Lin, whose heart-of-gold integrity, wisdom and forbearance, avert their family from fall apart at the seams.

Pearl S. Buck’s story is an encomium of woman, O-Lin, incarnated with all the traditional virtues Chinese people regard from a woman, a wife and a mother, not to mention in the whole time, it is O-Lin who acts as a linchpin (willing herself to chop their ox during the famine, refusing to sell their land at any rate) when Wang Lung succumbs to indecision or desperation and it is her potluck, after a within-an-inch-of-her-life incident (a striking set piece of mob anarchy shot by an uncredited Sam Wood), revivifies their future during the rigors of famine and mendicancy. By contrast, Wong Lung, far from a good-for-nothing, but pales in comparison as a human being too often, is lead up to the garden path by his scoundrel uncle (Connolly), who, against all odds, doesn’t get a payback he deserves, family is still family, a rotten philosophy needs some upgrading.

Two leading performances are fine but not great for this reviewer’s money, Paul Muni is a top-notch thespian, but still, playing a Chinese is a big stretch with all due respect; Luise Reiner (who has an uncanny resemblance of Celeste Holm in here), is more sympathetic than electrifying in a saintly role. Supporting players range from slumming it (Charley Grapewin as Wong’s crusty father) to decent (Keye Luke and Roland Lui as the couple’s adult sons), whereas dancer Tilly Losch’s turn as the concubine Lotus is mostly sanitized along with the intramural seduction (a woman’s shoe becomes a lecherous metaphor). At least, several Chinese-American actors are hired, but if one wants to detect any sign of consanguinity between sons and their father, it is a lost cause, in other sense, THE GOOD EARTH is an impressive adaption triumphant in its scale and aesthetic ambition (which means it is in dire urgent for a Blu-Ray refurbishment), its central story might taste stale, but its visual undertaking merits plaudits, plus, Hollywood actually withholds their exploitative guideline in an ethnological portrait, that is not a cinch looking back 80 years later.


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