Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Good Earth, The (1937)



Director: Sidney Franklin


Motion pictures have the ability to transport audiences to a different place and time with various productions, and in 1937 MGM takes movie goers to experience the life of a simple Chinese peasant farmer in The Good Earth. The picture stands as the last feature produced by the MGM “wonder boy” Irving Thalberg, who passed away before the film was released after fighting hard to get the picture off the ground. Although a story about Chinese culture, it stands well for any American audience of the 30s who would still see China as a Far East land of mystery, while starring Hollywood actors in make-up  to somewhat fill the roles of a different race. Somewhat breaking barriers, as well as fighting through movie politics, The Good Earth would emerge one the year’s best pictures.

The Good Earth tells the story of a poor Chinese farmer and his peasant wife as they struggle to survive and raising a family. Farmer Wang Lung (Paul Muni) marries servant girl, O-Lan (Luise Rainer), who proves to be a good and loyal wife through the hardships of living off meager crops. As time passes they see good times, buying new land, growing finances, and a growing family, but a drought and its impending famine calls for desperate times. O-Lan keeps Wang from selling all he had worked for in life for mere pennies, leading the family to panhandle in the bigger cities of the south just to get by until the rains return. While in the city a revolution breaks out, and through good fortune Wang and his family are able to return home with a new found wealth and turns Wang into a very prosperous man. With success comes new challenges for Wang, which nearly breaks his marriage and family apart, but through trails he is able to center himself once again on the importance of family in his life as he sadly watches his loyal wife, O-Lan, pass away, allowing he to become once again one with the land that he and his wife made into their loving home.

It is not exactly what one would think of as a Hollywood movie out of the 1930s, but The Good Earth is an epic sized story of the life of one man, as he rides up and down the many trials of life. Directed by veteran director of the stage and screen, Sidney Franklin, the film has great scope to it, shown in wide shots of great fields encompassing Wang’s farm and many extras, which is filmed primarily on a transformed ranch in Southern California, the picture contains great detail. Thalberg, as a producer was a person that loved great size and detail in his pictures and the three year undertaking that was put into this film can be seen all over this picture. From cinematography and the editing, to the acting and the screenwriting this picture manifests the great work it was to produce what is seen on screen.

The picture would star two notable actors in Hollywood, the tough looking man who shows a softer side in Paul Muni, and the Academy Awards winning actress of the previous year for her role in The Great Ziegfeld , Luise Rainer. Irving Thalberg had originally wanted to cast an all Chinese cast, but friction he had with MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer and the call for trusted American actors the primary cast would be filled with American actors in make-up to make them look Chinese. Muni does soften his gruff exterior he had created in films like Scarface and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang to create a meek character with moral tribulations.

The French born actress Rainer really suddenly appeared to become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood with her Academy Award winning performance in 1936 as an emotional and talkative wife in The Great Ziegfeld, but here she plays a more silent type. Though in a way a very different type of character, she evokes a strong emotional center to the picture as she did before in The Great Ziegfeld, and here in The Good Earth it would win her a second Academy Award for best actress, the first ever to win an acting award twice, as well as first consecutive winner of an Academy Award. Rainer was honored by the second honor for her acting, but was later quoted in her life that it would be her greatest trail to prove the Academy right as she continued to work afterwards.

The main supporting cast of white actors in Chinese styled make-up included the likes of character actors Jesse Ralph, Walter Connolly, and Charley Grapewin. Their performances would more or less be as their normal acting skills and voices, but with perhaps less major body movements to manifest the Chinese characters as a meeker kind of people. As what seemed common at the time, the exotic vamp character of Lotus, who becomes Wang’s second wife and nearly destroys the core of the family with internal sandal, is played by yet another attractive white lady with overly emphasized eye make-up, portrayed by Austrian born dancer/actress Tilly Losch. Lower supporting cast would be played by Chinese actors who do a decent job, proving to perhaps a few that ethnic actors can be trusted in better roles. The most notable would be Keye Luke who plays Wang’s eldest son and helps save the farm with his university education about locust. Luke would be best known for his role as Lee Chan, the son of Charlie Chan in a series of films starring Warner Oland.

Thalberg’s original idea of a Chinese cast would be shot down, but he worked hard to get as much as he could into the film. Anna May Wong, the American born Chinese actress, was originally considered for the role of O-Lan, but with Paul Muni as Wang the production code, as well as other moralists and censors, proclaimed that there cannot be mixed race marriages in the movie. Even though Muni was playing a Chinese man, he was white in real life and censors would not allow a white man to be married to a woman of a different race. Wong then would be considered for the role of Lotus, but Wong would additively reject the role for she would be the only major role played by a Chinese person and it was to be the most disliked character in the picture. Race was a big issue when producing motion pictures, and it can be understood why Louis B. Mayer was not looking forward to the production of the film.

Despite politics of getting the film made, including re-write after re-write to make the story less offensive for various parties, issues with trying to film in China that led to re-shoots in California, the loss of the original director, George W. Hill, at the beginning or production, and three years of work, The Good Earth would be one to the highest praised films of the year. In tribute to Thalberg, the feature went on to nominated for five Academy Awards for 1937. Nominations included categories of best picture, best director, and best editing, while winning for best actress (Rainer’s second consecutive awards) and best cinematography for Karl Freund.

The Good Earth is a very fine production that gives great respect to visionary filmmaking of the 1930s. At times the story becomes slow or seems to wander as there is little direction to the plot other than following the life of Wang and O-Lan, but it still becomes a picture audiences can enjoy. It encompasses a different era of filmmaking politics where race and ethics were issues studios did not like to toe, but this picture pushes the boundary in some areas, while still playing many aspects safe. It is a film of its time, but a progressive picture as well. At the heart of it is still shares a good story that audiences can enjoy in its own timeless way.

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