The Good Earth
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Good Earth, The (DVD)
First came marriage, an arranged union of peasant farmer Wang Lung (Paul Muni) and kitchen slave O-Lan (Luise Rainer). Then, through poverty and wealth, family and betrayal, and war and pestilence, came love. From Pearl S. Buck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Good Earth combines Wang and O-Lan’s story with a sweeping saga of China in upheaval. Muni and Rainer had both won 1936 Academy Awards®*, and Rainer repeated here with another Best Actress Oscar®*. The film also won for Best Cinematography – with camerawork most powerfully on display in the astonishing locust-plague sequence. Producer Irving Thalberg, known for combining literary prestige with commercial success, died during the production, and the film is dedicated to him.]]>
MGM's status as the "class" studio was fully engaged when production chief Irving Thalberg took on this expensive, serious adaptation of Pearl Buck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. A smooth entertainment with a stiff portion of this-is-good-for-you seriousness, The Good Earth epitomizes Thalberg's idea of Art, which was also the prevailing idea of the period he dominated in Hollywood. The story follows Wang Lung (Paul Muni), a humble farmer, who makes an arranged marriage to a slave, O-Lan (Luise Rainer). The couple's great struggle is to procure--and then, against withering odds, keep--a piece of land, ownership of which makes the difference between self-determination and near-slavery. The film's physical production is truly eye-filling, with location shooting in China providing exterior shots and backdrops (and blending seamlessly with the footage shot in the U.S.). No wonder the great cinematographer Karl Freund won an Oscar for the photography, which includes an awesomely staged locust plague.
Also copping an Oscar was Luise Rainer for best actress--her second consecutive award, after The Great Ziegfeld. Rainer's underplayed portrait of self-effacing stoicism is a contrast to Muni's broader performance, although in some odd way he's exactly right for his role. Caucasian actors play the main characters (Walter Connolly is the family's bothersome, and tiresome, know-it-all uncle), with Asian actors--including Keye Luke--filling out the supporting parts. The blend of sobriety and hokum is vintage Thalberg, and this is the one MGM movie with an onscreen dedication to the young dynamo; he died during production, age 37. --Robert Horton
- Vintage musical short: Hollywood Party
- Newsreel: Supreme Court of Films Picks the Champions
- Theatrical trailer
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1936 and 1937 were great years for Luise Rainer and Paul Muni. In 1936, Rainer won the Oscar for Best Actress in The Great Zeigfeld, and Muni won Best Actor in The Story of Louis Pasteur. In 1937 Rainer scored a rare back-to-back win as Best Actress in The Good Earth, co-starring Muni; while another of Muni's films, The Life of Emile Zola, took the Oscar for Best Picture.
The Good Earth performance of Walter Connolly as the lazy and conniving uncle of Wang Lung should be noted. He is so unctuous and oily that he is easy to dislike, exactly the effect intended by the script. Connolly was an accomplished character actor of the 1930s, appearing in Frank Capra's Academy Award-nominated Lady for a Day in 1933, as well as Capra's It Happened One Night, which swept all five of the major Academy Awards in 1934. Another notable character actor in The Good Earth is Charlie Grapewin, best known as Dorothy's Uncle Henry in Wizard of Oz (1939) and Grandpa Joad in Grapes of Wrath (1940). In The Good Earth he is Wang Lung's aged father.
The DVD presentation is from a print in good condition, with little or no restoration having been done. The film skillfully mixes small-scale live action in interior scenes with epic outdoor crowd scenes. It has many sequences of rear-projection, with the actors in front of a screen showing background activity, but very well done so that it all fits together nicely. The drought and famine sequences rely heavily on stock footage of actual events in China, all integrated believably with the acted scenes. The quality of the black-and-white photography is indicated by the fact that The Good Earth won the 1937 Academy Award for Best Cinematography. The era of color photography in major films began the very next year in 1938 with Robin Hood, and was solidified in 1939 with Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.
Considering its age, produced as it was during the first decade of the Hollywood sound era, The Good Earth is a very enjoyable film. Its special effects are dated, but remarkable for their time, and the fact that all of the lead roles in this story of China are portrayed by Caucasians caused not a ripple of concern in 1937. Judged by the standards of the time, it was a major success with a scope rarely seen before. By the standards of today, The Good Earth is still an enjoyable and historic film with high production values and excellent acting.
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