26 August 2006 | bkoganbing
"O-Lan, You Are the Earth"
What Irving Thalberg did in making this film today would never be attempted again. Making a Chinese story with occidental players even if they are of the caliber of Paul Muni, Luise Rainer, Charley Grapewin, and Walter Connolly among others.
Perhaps it's partly because the story was written by a westerner, Pearl Buck who got a Pulitzer Prize for her novel in 1932. Ms. Buck, daughter of Chinese missionaries, probably brought China closer to the consciousness of America than any other person. Not the political struggles of China, but the lives and toil of the every day people we find in The Good Earth. Unfortunately later on, Pearl Buck became an apologist for the Kuomintang China of Chiang Kai-Shek in all its virtues and excesses. The rest of her literary output never matched The Good Earth.
In The Sundowners there is a great description of comparing China to Australia by Peter Ustinov. When asked the difference, Ustinov said China was very big and very full and Australia was very big and very empty. That's what you see in The Good Earth, China very big and very full of people, more than she can deal with at times.
The Good Earth tells the story of Wang Lung (Paul Muni) as a young man who purchases a wife from a large house where she was a slave. The woman O-Lan (Luise Rainer) bears him two sons and sees him through all the good times and bad they have, drought, famine, revolution, and a climatic locust plague.
Luise Rainer won the second of two consecutive Oscars for portraying O-Lan. She may have set some kind of record in that it has to be the leading player Oscar performance with the least amount of dialog. Everything she does practically is done with facial expressions, her performance could have been on a silent film with very minimal subtitles. I think only John Mills in Ryan's Daughter had fewer words and he was playing a mentally retarded man.
Muni is not always appreciative of how supportive she is in that male dominated culture. Rainer helps in the field, bears and raises the kids, does the housework. When Muni becomes a man of property he takes a Chinese second trophy wife who causes him a lot of grief. Still Rainer stoically bears it all. Still Muni is not a bad man and it's a tribute to the film and his acting and Buck's writing that you don't hate him and the culture gap is bridged.
We've got a group of oriental players now who do more than just Kung Fu movies. I'm surprised The Good Earth of all films has not been remade at this point. I'll bet the Chinese government would even let some American company do it on an actual location.
Till then we've got this great classic to appreciate and enjoy.