The story of a farmer in China: a story of humility and bravery. His father gives Wang Lung a freed slave as wife. By diligence and frugality the two manage to enlarge their property. But ...
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The story of a farmer in China: a story of humility and bravery. His father gives Wang Lung a freed slave as wife. By diligence and frugality the two manage to enlarge their property. But then a famine forces them to leave their land and live in the town. However it turns out to be a blessing in disguise for them... Written by
Tom Zoerner <Tom.Zoerner@informatik.uni-erlangen.de>
According to Peter Hay's 1991 book "When the Lion Roars", when MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer learned of production chief Irving Thalberg's desire to film Pearl S. Buck's novel about Chinese peasants, he told him, "The public won't buy pictures about American farmers, and you want to give them Chinese farmers?" Opposed by Mayer, Thalberg had to appeal to Nicholas Schenck, the chief executive of MGM parent Loew's Theaters Inc. and President of MGM, to make the film. Permission was given, but Thalberg never lived to see the film completed. This is the only film that bears a Thalberg producer credit. See more »
During one scene, Wang Lung beats his son for being with his second wife. As the son crawls away, it is obvious he was protected by wearing a thick pad on his back. See more »
Introduction played with opening credits: The soul of great nation is expressed in the life of its humblest people. In this simple story of a Chinese farmer may be found something of a the soul of china - its humility, its courage, its deep heritage from the past and its vast promise for the future. See more »
In the 30s and 40s, MGM had a penchant for (then) contemporary Chinese-oriented stories ('The Son-Daughter', 'Dragon Seed', 'Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo', etc.), and whether this was a preference, or whether there were just a lot of Chinese-design sets to keep occupied at the studio, the results were strangely moving. 'The Good Earth' is of course the finest of its genre, for any number of reasons.
From the very beginning of the picture, right after the lion's roar, we see the poignant tribute to Irving Thalberg, and we know that we are embarking on an important viewing experience. The scope of the story is very wide, and the filmmakers are up for the task. I was always struck by the abruptness of the final scene, but its power and beauty form an excellent example of the art achieved within the often cynical Hollywood film factory. And Lotus - the strangeness of her, and her dance, contrasted with the goodness of O-lan!
Aside from the oft-mentioned attributes of acting, photography and special effects, a major element in 'The Good Earth' is the score. Herbert Stothart may not be in the ranks of Hollywood's 'mighty handful' (Alfred Newman, Steiner, Tiomkin, Waxman, Herrmann), but his 'MGM-sound' scores regularly deliver the goods. True, Stothart had no hesitation in applying the syrup at first opportunity (one can imagine Louis B. Mayer positively ordering it), but in this picture, syrup gives way to sympathy. One of the pleasures of Hollywood's Golden Age films is that all the elements of a given film support each other, and great scores support not only the characters, but the entire film. Stothart's score is so sympathetic and so sincere, from the Main Title all the way through, and it enhances the story and the performances so naturally and at times transparently, that it must be considered a classic score. No great 'tunes' specifically, but plenty of effective mood, atmosphere and unabashed emotion. Many of today's audiences may find little to enjoy in such a combination, or they may be embarrassed by it, but I revel in it, as cinema such as this, which is delivered with such heart and good will is, especially in these times, nothing short of a gift.
The issue of non-Chinese playing Chinese characters has already been discussed on these pages, but I can only add: please, viewers, consider the film within the era that it was produced. The same kind of incongruity still happens today, perhaps not so much racially, but certainly culturally: Brad Pitt in 'Seven Years in Tibet', Keanu Reeves in 'Little Buddha', and other Americans getting plum roles in British-originated stories that become Hollywoodized, etc. When making 'Bhowani Junction', George Cukor considered using Indian actors, but vetoed any candidates in favor of familiar Hollywood faces. Never mind that in the 50s, as today, India had a huge film industry. It's just that those actors didn't fit into the Hollywood scheme of things. That speaks of box office more than political incorrectness. There is no doubt that fine actors like Philip Ahn should have gotten lead roles in pictures like 'The Good Earth', but at least we can enjoy them in supporting roles which carry a lot of weight in their own right. As time goes on, the context of past eras fades, while the films themselves, the really good ones, live on. There's plenty of opportunity for revisionist theses about issues like racial inequality in 1930s Hollywood, but for 138 minutes, it is compelling and moving to absorb onesself in the story and the atmosphere of 'The Good Earth'.
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