Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Good Earth 1937

I can’t get over how much I enjoyed this epic Hollywood movie from 1937 about poor Chinese peasants played by rich Hollywood actors. The source material is from the very popular Pulitzer Prize winning novel by pearl s. buck, that every junior high school student growing up in the early 60’s had to read, myself included. The movie was and probably still is not without controversary because of the casting of Caucasian Hollywood movie stars to play Chinese. This was of course the common mode of operation back then, and besides what Asian actors and actresses were there who could have taken on these roles. Anna Mae Wong desperately wanted the part of O-lan but was of course turned down, and instead was offered the role of Lotus the courtesan of Wang Lung played by Paul Muni. Anna Mae rightly said no and the role was finally played by the exotic Tilly Losch a Viennese actress slumming as Chinese. So the casting was set with Paul Muni and Luise Rainer in the leads, and a slew of good character actors picked to fill the supporting “ Chinese” roles including Walter Connolly, Charlie Grapewin and Jessie Ralph, and as wonderful as they usually are, in these roles they jar. Bones were thrown to a few actors of Asian descent including the wonderful Key Luke who played one of the grown up sons of Muni and Rainer. Muni one of the most Urban of actors at first gave me the creeping whoopee's, because of his tendency to overact, but slowly he grew on me, and I sat back and said ok he’s not so bad. The real gem of the film is of course Louise Rainer who is truly wonderful in the part of the much put upon former kitchen slave who is picked as a bride for Muni without ever meeting him. Her performance is almost a pantomime. I was especially taken with how she used her body especially her hands to convey the sadness and brutality of her life. The film is long covering their entire marriage, and along the way we are treated to famine, the famous plague of locusts, revolution, riots and all sorts of deaths and desires. Vividly produced as only M.G.M could do, with beautiful cinematography by the great Karl Freund, this was a big hit for the studio both financially and critically. receiving 5 Oscar nominations including Best Picture and winning a best actress Oscar for Rainer who was at the time the only performer to win a major award two years in a row. Again there is controversary over her winning the best actress award the year before for The Great Ziegfeld for a very brief role. And yes I know what about her German accent? At first I was a little bothered by it, but she is so moving, lovely and graceful in the part, that I found myself not caring. The direction is by the long forgotten Sidney Franklin ( with uncredited direction by Sam Wood, Victor Fleming and Gustav Machatý ) who was one of the prestige good taste directors at M.G.M. Franklin began his directing career in 1915 but directed only 9 sound films, with this one being his most admired and remembered one.


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