When Judge Joel Pearce says Paul Muni is no Sidney Toler, he means it in a good way.
The soul of a great nation is expressed in the life of its humblest people.
Combining an exotic setting with timely social commentary, The Good Earth has weathered the past 70 years surprisingly well, thanks to its award-winning performances and cinematography. It remains an epic look into the mindset of the depression—full of frustration, stoicism, and hope.
Facts of the Case
Peasant farmer Wang Lung (Paul Muni, The Life of Emile Zola) struggles to get by in rural China, and is only able to marry a poor slave girl who works at the local Lord's house. He meets O-Lan (Luise Rainer, The Great Ziegfeld) for the first time on their wedding day, discovering a plain woman who cannot see herself as anything more than a slave.
The rest of the film follows their struggles and successes: through droughts, wars, and plagues, they must learn to love and trust one another, even in the most difficult situations.
Going into The Good Earth, I was not looking forward to watching a movie set in China featuring almost exclusively white actors. Combined with my previous distaste of cinematography and performances from the '30s, my expectations were very low. I was pleasantly surprised by every aspect of this production. After a while, I even stopped noticing that the actors were obviously white. I think it's mainly because of the sweeping, epic plot, that the movie is still able to whisk us away to another place and time. The story is meticulously told, lingering at the best moments, but pressing ever onward towards the next adventure.
I can see why The Good Earth was nominated for so many awards in 1937. Although it claims to be a story of China, the drought and locust plague would have struck close to home for an American audience during the depression. This was a story that showed that North America wasn't the only part of the world that faced harsh conditions at times, and offered a promise of hope and a better future. The lesson that Wang Lung learns through the film is not a Chinese lesson, where upward social mobility is a matter of more than just money. No, he learns that the best thing to do is stick with his land and work hard, not matter what happens. So long as he is bending his back on his own land, no real disaster can befall him. Sure, he faces some difficult times, but none of them are permanent. True disaster only befalls him when he either leaves his land or stops working that land himself.
That said, there's much more to enjoy here than social commentary. Paul Muni and Louise Rainer both have far more nuanced performances than are often found in films from this era. We really get the sense that these characters are growing and aging throughout the film, and Muni strikes the perfect combination of charisma and humanity. We like Wang Lung, even when he makes stupid decisions. The really impressive performance, though, comes from Rainer. She has few lines, but her subtle movements and expressions speak volumes about what is happening in O-Lan's mind. Some of the supporting roles are a bit hammy, but these two main roles wonderfully anchor the film.
The cinematography also remains fresh and contemporary. While The Good Earth doesn't look like it was made in the past decade, it has some sequences that were so well produced that I can't tell how they managed it with the technology of the time. The locust plague sequence is the most famous for a reason, as it remains completely riveting. The rest of the film is wonderful to watch as well, avoiding any of the usual staginess of classic films. I was also blown away by the riot scenes during the revolution, which use creative camera angles that still feel fresh today. This combination of elements makes The Good Earth an important artifact of Hollywood's history as well as an entertaining watch for contemporary audiences.
Fortunately, the restoration is up to Warner's usual standards. The print displays some dirt, of course, but it looks stunning considering its age. The rich filming and contrast is well captured, and no digital artifacts are noticeable. The sound has been cleaned up as well, presented here in its original mono. The dialogue isn't always crystal clear, but it's never impossible to understand either. Fans of the film are sure to be pleased with this impressive transfer.
Less dazzling is the collection of special features. It's not as thin as some of Warner's classic entries, but it can't really be considered a special edition. There is a musical short entitled Hollywood Party, that offers a ridiculous representation of China. Both racist and sexist, it stumbles into all of the pitfalls that The Good Earth manages to avoid. There is also footage of awards ceremonies, as Louise Rainer and Producer Irving Thalberg are celebrated.
Even if you are not normally a fan of classic film, The Good Earth is well worth investigating. It's a discs that I didn't ask to review, but one that I'm very glad to have had the chance to experience. It acts as a stark reminder that very little has changed over the past 70 years of filmmaking—The Good Earth still has the ability to dazzle and entertain us now.
Who am I to take away Wang Lung's legacy after all these years. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Vintage Musical Short: Hollywood Party
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