The Good Earth is held up as a Hollywood classic, the kind of picture they don't make any more and the apex of the Golden Era. It's also known as one of the final productions of Irving Thalberg, the MGM wunderkind head of production who took no screen credit but personally oversaw every detail of the studio's output. Many MGM pictures were re-written, reshot and sometimes shelved, but nothing left the studio without his personal approval.
The studio system of the 1930s could create grandiose works, what with a favorable job market and a formidable studio staff on call six days a week with no standard quitting time. There are plenty of pictures that feature tremendous sets and reconstructions of earlier eras. For The Good Earth Thalberg traded for a top Warners star, Paul Muni, and set about converting several acres in Chatsworth to serve as Chinese farmland.
Going into the 21st century, The Good Earth remains the standard picture of China as it was once imagined, a land of peasants, odd customs, "teeming masses" and political upheaval. Pearl Buck's novels popularized the idea of the Chinese as having completely different values and thinking differently than Westerners, even though their basic dreams and needs are the same. In WW2 this immensely popular and prestigious movie had a lot to do with popaganda images, helping Americans distinguish between our allies (good, salt-of-the-Earth Chinese) and the enemy (the demonized Japanese).
The Good Earth succeeds and sustains because its story is universal. Every culture retains memories of ancestors who worshipped the land, feared God and were grateful for every turn of fate that did not end in famine or pestilence. Wang Lung and O-Lan have dignity and an Earthy Nobility that signifies good in any culture; Chinese who saw the film were reportedly flattered by their portrayal, even with Anglos playing the lead Chinese roles.
MGM tried the same gambit during WW2 with Dragon Seed, a dramatically non-functioning draw-dropper that puts Katharine Hepburn in Asian eye makeup. Luise Rainer and Paul Muni were much less familiar chameleon actors, a different kind of star. Neither looks particularly Chinese but they successfully compensate with stylized acting -- with Hepburn we still see the Yankee smile and expect her to start talking about Calla-Lilies. By the time we've accepted the conventions of Chinese speaking English, with their constant protests of unworthiness, we're ready to believe Wang Lung's wide-eyed innocence and O-Lan's ingrained humility.
A lot of writers worked on the script; we're told that Frances Marion and Marc Connolly helped out as well as the credited names. The story takes huge leaps in time, ellipsing big pieces of the book, but the aging of the characters is fairly credible, as is the growing of the second generation, all played by Chinese Americans like Keye Luke. All of the set-pieces are memorable, with Wang Lung creeping shyly into a rich woman's compound that he will someday own, and being mesmerized by the dancer Lotus (Tilly Losch, of Garden of Allah and Duel in the Sun. Karl Freund uses some clever lighting tricks during one extended shot of Lotus, dimming the image for an erotic effect.
There's also an economical but effective city revolution sequence with rioting and looting. Probably to retain good relations with the Chinese government, the troops executing looters are shown to be doing a necessary job of dispensing justice. Louis B. Mayer gets things his way when one Communist inciting the revolution is pictured being shot on the street.
But the big scene in The Good Earth, the one that made it a must-see picture, is a special effects sequence designed to out-do the earthquake in San Francisco. Film theorist Slavko Vorkapich was again in charge, assembling a ferocious montage from special effects (by James Basevi, Dave Friedman and James Havens), frenzied closeups of locusts eating and Wang Lung's men trying to ward them off with fire, water and their bare hands. It provides an upbeat finale for a mostly anxious series of episodes.
Vorkapich's work is actually more strongly felt in seven or eight restrained montages placed through the film to show the passage of time. They're all quite imaginative and free of cliché content. Good times and a growing family are shown in images of Wang Lung's first-born son playing in the harvested wheat as it is being milled. More famous montages in other pictures used symbols like giant stacks of coins toppling to represent the Stock Market Crash; but the rapid impressions here integrate into the show beautifully, making us feel we're seeing much more.
The Good Earth is a good picture to toss up at PC folk who can't stand seeing anything portrayed in terms unacceptable to modern attitudes. The world in China is grossly unfair, with female children considered less than desirable. O-Lan's daughter might be brain-damaged from starvation, and we barely see her. O-Lan is of course the eternal suffering woman, forever beaten down and humble. Wang Lung succumbs to the temptations of pride, wealth and sex but is forgiven all of his sins, even when he minimizes the fact that everything good that ever happened to him is a direct result of labor or risk taken by O-Lan -- he even asks her to return the two little pearls she coveted. This of course makes for an emotional knockout of an ending, when Wang Lung grasps his wife's peach tree (which didn't get consumed, roots and all, during the famine) and proclaims that O-Lan and the Earth he loves are one and the same. A beautiful thought, and it's too bad it didn't cross Wang Lung's mind a few decades earlier.
Readers of the book will be quick to add that Pearl Buck's original story was much more harsh and pessimistic. Wang Lung gets his troublesome Aunt and Uncle off his back by introducing them to opium. At the end, Wang Lung is something of an addled dotard, and as he dreams of his lost O-Lan, his ungrateful sons conspire to take possession of his properties and shunt him aside. The Good Earth doesn't exactly end in laughter but it does shift the tone of the story -- the locust battle not only brings Wang Lung back "down to Earth," it inspires him to heal his differences with his sons and his old friend Ching (Ching Wah Lee).
Warners' DVD of The Good Earth is a welcome title. The picture is unbroken and the audio is good, but the transfer is far from perfect, undoubtedly due to the lack of prime source materials. Much of the film is scratched and overall it looks a bit contrasty, with some patches looking better than others. It appears to be a case of an original negative lost or worn out, with a poor selection of dupes remaining to work with.
Special effects shots, opticals and shots with lots of detail seem to have a coarser "digital grain" structure, indicating that the movie could have been more carefully encoded. This seems to happen a lot during the locust attack, when the clarity changes shot-by shot. It's all probably the result of trying to get a good encoding from a contrasty source. Luckily, the majority of the film looks fine, with Karl Freund's camerawork standing out in special scenes like Tilly Losch's exotic stage performance.
The amusing extra is a two-reel featurette in gaudy 3-Strip Technicolor called Hollywood Party. Filmed outdoors (to get enough light, surely), it's a forgettable variety show with Elissa Landi introducing a few acts, some of which are "Chinese" flavored in a more stereotypical way. But it does give us a glimpse of Clark Gable, Joe E. Brown and a few other stars in the new color system. The highlight is seeing the legendary Anna May Wong for a couple of minutes. She models a pair of dresses "she bought on a trip to China" and makes a deft joke of her rusty Mandarin when the girl she talks to only understands Cantonese. It looks as if the underused Wong could have handled any kind of role.
A 'now at popular prices' trailer is included, as well as an odd Oscars-themed newsreel blip called Supreme Court of FIlms Picks the Champions.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Good Earth rates: