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19. THE GOOD EARTH, 1937

A classic sweeping epic filled with non-stop emotion

The Good Earth

“The Good Earth” is a magnificent example of a classic Hollywood studio film. Based on Pearl S. Buck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name, it is a gripping saga from start to finish with breathtaking action sequences, intense emotions, gorgeous cinematography, and first rate performances. While a masterful epic, it is primarily an intimate portrait following the ups and downs of a couple in Pre-Revolutionary China that is powerful from start to finish. It's a film about hardships, love, greed, desires, and the power of the land.


Top filmmakers in that era were exceptional story tellers, and "The Good Earth" proves it. A great example from this film comes when the two lead characters, a kitchen slave and a peasant farmer, meet for the first time and learn about each other on their walk home. Without saying anything we learn about them from the superb visual narrative, which sets the stage for the tone of the entire film. This truly enjoyable gem has a personality of its own filled with emotion and heart. Much is expressed nonverbally, especially by the lead character “O-Lan”. I would guess there is less dialogue spoken in this film than in most classic sound films. “The Good Earth” was nominated for five Academy Awards, including "Best Picture", winning two (one for "Best Actress" and one for "Best Cinematography").


The Good Earth

One has to overlook the political incorrectness that in this story about a Chinese family, the main characters are played by Caucasian actors, and the lead actress even has a German accent! Chinese American star Anna May Wong was considered for the female lead of “O-Lan”, but because Caucasian actor Paul Muni was to be the male lead, in accordance with the Production Code (which I briefly explain in the “Red Dust” entry) the studio was forbidden to show an interracial couple. Because Muni was the bigger star, Anna May Wong did not get the part. Unfortunately, that’s the way things were done back then. Luise Rainer was cast instead and ended up winning a "Best Actress" Oscar for her stunning performance. Despite not using Chinese actors, the leading characters are shown with dignity and as real human beings. To MGM’s credit, at least many of the supporting cast were Asian.


Irving Thalberg

“The Good Earth” was produced under MGM’s head of production, Irving Thalberg, who died just after the film was completed. He transformed MGM Studios into the biggest, most powerful and profitable of all the studios at the time, and because he was young, came to be known as the "Boy Wonder" of Hollywood.. I’d be willing to state that he is the most important producer in Hollywood history. The very first thing you will see in “The Good Earth”, even before the film credits, is a dedication to Thalberg. It reads “To the memory of Irving Grant Thalberg, we dedicate this picture, his last great achievement”. I’ve heard over and over how he was admired and truly liked by everyone - almost unheard of for a movie mogul. He began work in films at Universal Studios in New York, and then in Los Angeles, starting as a secretary and ending up a producer. He left Universal to help create MGM studios with studio chief Louis B. Mayer. Thalberg became Head of Production at MGM in 1925 when he was just 26 years old. He had the authority to oversee all films and had a knack for choosing and improving scripts, getting the right film crews, as well as finding and developing stars. Just some the stars he is credited with creating include Luise Rainer, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, John Gilbert, and Norma Shearer. He was brilliant at his job and gifted with a sixth sense of perceiving public taste. So much so, that MGM became known as the studio with “more stars than there are in heaven”, and produced many of the best and most profitable films of that era (sound and silent), including “Grand Hotel”, “Red Dust”, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ”, “The Big Parade”, “Mutiny on the Bounty”, “A Night at the Opera”, “Camille”, “Greed”, “The Barretts of Wimpole Street”, and hundreds more. I don’t believe he was ever credited onscreen for his work. Thalberg was born in Brooklyn, New York with a weak heart and wasn’t expected to live a long life. He was married once, to one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Norma Shearer, with whom he had two children. Irving Thalberg died in 1936 at the age of 37. After his death, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences formed the “Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award”, given out sporadically to producers to honor their bodies of work.


Paul Muni

Paul Muni stars as “Wang Lung”, the peasant farmer who literally and figuratively depends on the land for his life. Muni's sympathetically touching performance brings humor, depth, and humanity to a man in search of wealth and status. A role like this was right up his alley as Muni was an outstanding leading character actor, known for transforming (often with make-up) into radically different types of men, most notably historical figures. Born in the Ukraine and growing up in Chicago, Paul Muni began acting in Yiddish theater in Chicago, and made it to Broadway in 1925. He was signed by Fox Studios in 1929, and was unofficially nominated for a “Best Actor” Academy Award for his first film, “The Valiant” the year he was signed (there were no nominations at that time - only winners, but he was evidently in the running and is credited with an unofficial nomination). He would eventually be nominated for four “Best Actor” Oscars (including one for “The Good Earth”) winning his only Oscar the year before “The Good Earth”, for “The Story of Louis Pasteur”. Interesting also, is that his “The Good Earth” co-star Luise Rainer also won an Oscar the year before for “Best Actress”, which I’ll talk about below. Paul had a huge success in the title role in his third film, one of the great gangster films of all time, “Scarface”, and with his following film "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”. He was at the peak of his film career in the 1930s, made less films in the 1940s, and only two films in the 1950s. He worked on Broadway throughout his career up until 1958, and won a Tony for his much talked about performance in the 1955 production of “Inherit the Wind”. The film version of that play, starring Spencer Tracy and Fredric March will appear on this blog in the future. Paul also acted in television from the late 1940s until the early 1960s. He evidently was not thrilled with Hollywood and the roles he was being offered, and as a result did not make a lot of films compared to other stars. He did appear in many classics however, including "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”, “Scarface", "The Story of Louis Pasteur". "Juarez", "The Life of Emile Zola", and "Stage Door Canteen". He gave many skilled and solid performances and was a film actor ahead of his time. He was married once from the time he was 25 until his death. Paul Muni died in 1967 at the age of 71.


Luise Rainer

Luise Rainer, who stars as kitchen slave turned peasant farmer “O-Lan”, was a radiant and very talented actress known for her big eyes, vulnerability, oozing emotion, and German accent. I fell in love with her when I saw "The Good Earth” for the first time as a kid. She says so much through her face, and has a way of making her heartfelt emotions contagious. We identify with her through her heart, not her words. Not being Chinese, she didn’t want this role but was forced by MGM to take it. They originally wanted her to wear a mask but she refused, concerned it would mask her emotions. She ended up winning a “Best Actress” Academy Award for her portrayal in this film, her second in a row, becoming the first actor or actress to win back to back Oscars. She won her Oscar the year before for her second American film, “The Great Ziegfeld”, primarily for an emotional scene on a telephone - a role quite different from the shy, submissive “O-Lan”. Luise became nicknamed the “Viennese Teardrop”, and could cry on cue. Born in Germany, Luise Rainer began in theater soon making her way to Vienna, Austria. While in Vienna she worked with and studied under the famed theater director Max Reinhardt, soon transforming into an acclaimed actress. In the beginning of the 1930s she appeared in several German language films. She was spotted by a talent scout and offered a contract at MGM, so with the rise of Adolf Hitler (she was Jewish) she left Germany. After making just eight films in three years for MGM, she felt she had nothing more to give, and left Hollywood. She made such an impression from her brief time as a star, she would constantly be lured to comeback to films for pretty much the rest of her life. She would appear in some television in the 1940s and 1950s, and in only four more films. Her other most noted films include “The Great Ziegfeld”, "The Great Waltz", "The Toy Wife", and as the grandmother in 1997's "The Gambler”. I had the thrill of seeing her interviewed by Robert Osborne live at the 2010 TCM (Turner Classic Film) Festival before a screening of “The Good Earth” (which was extraordinary on the big screen). She had broken her hearing aid so Robert Osborne pretty much let her just talk. She was 100 years old, completely lucid, and extremely inspiring. It was a deeply moving and memorable event. A very dear friend of mine was friendly with Luise Rainer and said she was a very smart and well read woman who was eccentric, sweet, coquettish, and owned great art! She was married twice, her first marriage was briefly to playwright Clifford Odets. In 2014, just about two weeks before her 105th birthday, Luise Rainer died at the age of 104.


Walter Connolly

There are lots of wonderful performances by the supporting cast of “The Good Earth”. And by the way, I would say even the land is basically a character. One actor you’ve already seen in this film (if you are watching the films on here) is Walter Connolly who plays the “Uncle”. You previously saw him as Claudette Colbert’s father in It Happened One Night”. Walter might be hard to recognize at first in this film given his make up, but his distinct gravely voice and manner of speaking are dead giveaways it’s him. This time around they help constitute a pretty abrasive character who creates some of the film's tension.


Charley Grapewin

Another character actor who appears in many classic films is Charley Grapewin, who plays the part of the “Old Father”. He often portrayed cranky or eccentric old men, and like Walter Connolly, had a distinct speaking voice. I find his performance in this film very moving, as I often do with his work. He was a superb actor with considerable depth. Charley appeared in just over 100 films from 1900 until 1951, including many classics such as "They Died With Their Boots On”, "Alice Adams", "Libeled Lady", "Captains Courageous”, “Grandpa Joad” in "The Grapes of Wrath", "The Petrified Forest", "Tobacco Road", and perhaps his best known role as Dorothy’s “Uncle Henry” in "The Wizard of Oz". Charley Grapewin died in 1956 at the age of 86.


Keye Luke

Keye Luke, who plays the "Elder Son", is also of note in “The Good Earth”. He had a long and prolific career, acting in over 200 films and TV shows from 1934 until 1990. Keye is marvelous in “The Good Earth”, and it is very satisfying to see a Chinese American actor in a substantial role in the film. He appeared in many films, and is probably best remembered for playing Charlie’s “Number One Son”, “Lee Chan”, in the Warner Oland “Charlie Chan” series of films. Other notable films in which Keye appeared include "The Green Hornet", "Gremlins", "Phantom of Chinatown”, "Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood”, and his last appearance in Woody Allen's 1990 film, “Alice". He mostly appeared in television from the 1950s on, showing up in practically every classic show including "Gunsmoke", "Perry Mason", "General Hospital", "The Andy Griffith Show", "Dragnet 1967", "Star Trek: The Original Series", "Here's Lucy", "Hawaii Five-O”, “M*A*S*H", “Charlie’s Angels”, “ "Falcon Crest", "The Golden Girls", and was a regular on three TV series including “Kung Fu”. Keye Luke died in 1991 at the age of 86.


Cedric Gibbons

A key crew member in the production of “The Good Earth” is Cedric Gibbons, who was in charge of the film’s Art Direction. Art Direction is something many viewers take for granted. The setting of a film often looks so real we automatically assume it was filmed on location exactly as the film crew found it. However, there is someone overseeing the characteristics, feel, and design of the set or location, making sure it echos and enhances the director’s vision. That person (or department) is the Art Director, of which Cedric Gibbons is at the top of the list. As you can see from the sets and landscapes of “The Good Earth”, he was truly an extraordinary pro. We are totally transported to a village in China, a farmhouse, a kitchen, the “big house”, the squares, the squatters area, and so on. Everything was thought out, preplanned, and meticulously created to look exactly how it appears in the film. Cedric began his career in silent films, and joined the Art Department of MGM at its inception where he would work for 32 years. He was the Art Director for literally hundreds of classic films (over a thousand films in general), and developed a visual design style that influenced Hollywood films and the world's tastes. Just a sampling of some of his classics are “The Wizard of Oz”, "Gaslight", "The Yearling", "National Velvet", "Lust for Life", "An American in Paris", "Forbidden Planet", "Love Me or Leave Me", "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers", "Singing in the Rain", "The Red Badge of Courage", "Little Women", and "Mrs. Miniver”. He was nominated for 39 Academy Awards, winning 11, and, funny enough was the person who designed the Oscar statuette. You will definitely see his name appear time and time again in classic films. He was a very prolific and important figure in films. Cedric Gibbons died in 1960 at the age of 67.


Karl Freund

One more innovative crew member certainly worth mentioning is cinematographer Karl Freund, who won a "Best Cinematography" Academy Award for his work in "The Good Earth”. Freund is also a very important and influential figure. He was the first cinematographer in early films to take the camera off the tripod and move it around without restraint. This became known as the “unchained camera technique” - a technique which totally changed films forever. Freund was born in what is now the Czech Republic, and came to Hollywood in 1929. He was the cinematographer for many iconic films such as the important silents “Metropolis”, “The Last Laugh”, and “The Golem”, and sound films such as “Dracula”, "Key Largo”, "Camille", "Pride and Prejudice", and "Golden Boy”. He also directed several films including the original "The Mummy”. In 1954 Freund moved to television, and among the shows he photographed was “I Love Lucy”, where he and Desi Arnaz invented the “three camera setup” (filming scenes with three cameras at once), a system still used in television today. He was nominated for three Academy Awards, including his win for “The Good Earth”. In 1955, he was awarded a Technical Achievement Oscar for the design and development of a direct reading brightness meter. Karl Freund died in 1969 at the age of 79.


The Good Earth

“The Good Earth” is an emotionally moving spectacle which embodies so many strong elements of classic film. It was one of my very favorites as a kid, and is still very high on my list. Enjoy the sweeping scope and big heart of “The Good Earth”!



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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):

The monumental scene with the plague of locusts in “The Good Earth” became a classic of its own. I've always tried to find out how they did it and never got a definitive answer. It was said to be special effects mixed with live action shots, as well as an actual plague of locusts happening in a different state at the time which they quickly filmed. I don’t know what’s true, but either way it is pretty spectacular!