For maybe the first ninety minutes of The Good Earth, it seems like the most interesting thing to talk about is going to be how the filmmakers were able to make the lead characters in the film appear sympathetic while they were being, frankly, un-American. It makes sense, since the main characters are Chinese. The film’s set in the early twentieth century—with the 1911 Xinhai Revolution playing a short but important part, at least for the sake of plot contrivance and spectacle. At one point, upon moving south, on the run from famine, farmer’s wife Luise Rainer teaches her children how to panhandle. The scene’s particularly striking because you can’t really imagine any other big budget Hollywood movie on the late 1930s endorsing panhandling. And you also can’t imagine them doing it without a white actor endorsing it. Because Rainer is not Chinese. Neither is her husband, played by Paul Muni. Neither is his father, played by Charley Grapewin. And neither is Walter Connolly, playing Grapewin’s brother and Muni’s uncle. And neither is Tilly Losch, as the other woman. And Jessie Ralph, as the slave supervisor who tormented Rainer before she was married off? She’s definitely not Chinese either.
There are some Chinese actors in the film, but not for quite a while. For whatever reason, Good Earth doesn’t give the Asian-American actors anything to do until it’s Keye Luke and Roland Lui as Rainer and Muni’s sons. Weird how two white people in a bunch of makeup had Asian kids. Suzanna Kim is their daughter (grown), but she’s gone mute and dumb because of starving as a toddler, when famine hit and Muni wouldn’t sell his land because the movie’s all about him going from poor farmer to successful capitalist and losing his soul in the process. Though—and I’m going to be jumping around because Good Earth is really boring and and I don’t want to go through it linearly—but it’s not like Muni had much soul in the first place. He spends the first half of the film as a bit of a moron. He’s good-hearted, hard-working, sweet to wife Rainer, but he’s a dope. He talks all the time too, so much Rainer barely gets any lines. You’d think the filmmakers realized how obnoxious Grapewin’s performance was getting so they stopped giving him monologues (which Grapewin performs, albeit in yellow-face, a hillbilly stereotype), but in the last third or whatever, they give Connolly a bunch to do and he’s even worse than Grapewin, particularly in terms of the “Chinese” performance. Connolly, Losch, and Ralph are the worst performances. Ralph’s only got two scenes but she’s real, real bad. It’d be nice to say Luke and Lui are any good, but they’re not. Lui’s at least sympathetic. Luke’s got zero personality. Muni’s shockingly okay until the second half, when he’s got to play the rich man (who only got rich because, after almost being trampled to death in a riot—and left for dead—Rainer finds a bag of jewels), and then he’s bad. Muni’s too much of a dope in the first half to be believable in the second. The old age makeup for him is also weird. Rainer’s old age make up is fine, arguably better than just her yellow-face, but something goes wrong on Muni’s.
Rainer’s performance is… complicated. Well, not the performance, but whether or not it’s successful. See, the film posits one of the great things about China being the respect for the patriarchal system. Wives obey. Having multiple wives isn’t cool—one’s all a farmer needs—especially not when you’ve got one who gets up and makes you breakfast, works the field pregnant, delivers her babies by herself, and… I don’t know, doesn’t have any self-interest. Though Rainer eventually does get a monologue about the importance of not having any self-interest. And women also don’t get to talk much, especially not when the men are talking. So Rainer is already doing yellow-face, in this part where she’s not allowed any agency (in fact it’d be a failing), she doesn’t get many lines, she doesn’t have much chemistry with Muni. With those constraints? She’s fine. She’s really good in the old age makeup.
The film’s a technical marvel—just one with a lot of dragging sequences in between. There’s a great storm sequence at the beginning, the riot scene is well-executed (as action, not some much how Franklin shoots it), and the locust attack is phenomenal. There are occasionally some phenomenally edited quick cuts from Basil Wrangell. More than occasionally. Or at least more than the occasional bad cuts the film also features, though the bad cuts aren’t ever in those quick cut montages. They’re usually in dramatic scenes between Rainer and Muni in the first half, when they’ve got more chemistry than the script and director requires, but less than the film needs.
The montages are awesome though. Up until the second half, it at least seems like Good Earth is going to be able to keep going thanks to technical achievement.
But the stuff with Muni as a rich lord, listening to now sidekick crook uncle Connolly while dad Grapewin wastes away at the old house (now an estate), suffering from dementia… that stuff isn’t just tedious, it’s also narratively pointless. None of it ends up mattering for the film, except to drag Muni through the mud enough—combined with the weird makeup—to make him totally unsympathetic. Bummer.
I suppose, for a film no one ever should have produced the way they produced it, The Good Earth has some success. But it’s far more interesting as a relic of ingrained racism or maybe even a commentary on the nature of cross-cultural adaptation than a film. Muni and Rainer survive it, though Muni’s dangerously close to running out of first half momentum by the end.
Directed by Sidney Franklin; screenplay by Talbot Jennings, Tess Slesinger, and Claudine West, based on the novel by Pearl S. Buck; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Basil Wrangell; music by Herbert Stothart; produced by Albert Lewin; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Starring Paul Muni (Wang), Luise Rainer (O-Lan), Charley Grapewin (Old Father), Tilly Losch (Lotus), Walter Connolly (Uncle), Soo Yong (Aunt), Keye Luke (Elder Son), Roland Lui (Younger Son), Suzanna Kim (Daughter), and Jessie Ralph (Cuckoo).