Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Good Earth

"The Good Earth" (Sidney Franklin, Victor Fleming, George W. Hill, Sam Wood and Gustav Machatý, 1936) This is a film (as Leonard Maltin would say) "very much of its time"—Hollywood critical code for saying that if it was made this way today it would be picketed and protested and denounced on the Senate floor (well, maybe not the last one). So, let's just get it out of the way. There's a lot of racism in "The Good Earth," from the casting of Paul Muni* and Luise Rainer (and many of the principals, including Walter Connolly and...Charley Grapewin?!), all Caucasians, as Asians,** which is unfortunate, the music is Hong-Kong china-gong cliche-ridden, the pigeon-English of the screenplay insulting. Absolutely true.

Give them points for trying in bloody 1936, though. The original plan for the film, as envisioned by author
Pearl Buck and M-G-M honcho Irving Thalberg was to create an all-Chinese film, but studio pressure for "better profits with bigger stars" from M-G-M head Louis B. Mayer (who didn't want to make the film, whether it was profitable or not) compromised the plan—Paul Muni was cast as farmer Wang Lung. And, because of anti-miscegenation language built into the Hays Code, as Wang was being played by a white guy, a Chinese actress could therefore not be cast as Mrs. Wang. So the part went to Luise Rainer, who had won the Oscar for Best Actress for "The Great Ziegfeld."***

Original director
George W. Hill traveled to China to film location footage that was supplemented by California locations and sets. Hill died before principal photography could take place and Sidney Franklin was hired as director—but as, with other big M-G-M productions, other directors stepped in for some sequences, including the ubiquitous Victor Fleming (of "Gone with the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz" fame), and Sam Wood, who directed the genuinely frightening scenes of the looting at The Great House.  This one tears the "auteur" theory to shreds as it was, very much, a Producer's picture. Thalberg (fictionalized in "The Last Tycoon" by F. Scott Fitzgerald), oversaw the whole thing, picking directors from his stable of them to maximize the thrill of specific sequences to enhance the spectacle of his "prestige" picture, and despite the clashing styles, the thing seems to work rather seamlessly.

Beyond the piece-meal approach and industrial racism, though, "The Good Earth" is frequently thrilling with production value and subtle in its politics. In it, we see a lower-caste family go through the travails of living off the soil. When "The Good Earth" turns against them and a drought threatens the family, they're forced to movie "to the city" to look for work. Glossy this production may be, but it doesn't turn a blind eye to tragedy, with surprisingly dire consequences for the family. Their fortunes turn—through theft—and they prosper, but that good fortune corrupts, distancing the family from the community. Only when the future is threatened with a devastating invasion (and it literally looks like it) of locusts—through a combination of M-G-M effects wizardry and micro-photography—does the village, now a small city, band together and defeat a Nature they can beat back with sticks and fire.

As I stated, the film is worrisome for its attempts at political correctness and political duplicity at the expense of caricature and wrong-headed casting, but it does deliver an unblinking look at the havoc that can be wrought on people caught between the gales of Nature and their own natures.  Rainer is fairly luminous throughout, and it is particularly heart-warming to see Keye Luke, whom I'd only known as an old man, young and strapping as the best educated (and thus least respected) of the farmer's sons.

"The Good Earth" should be seen in the spirit of "The Big Epic" (with all the frothing, high dudgeon and drama inherent in such enterprises).   It is best, flaws known and forgiven...if not ignored.

* I'm as Chinese as Herbert Hoover" was Muni's retort to his suggested casting.

** And, look, as sure as Anthony Quinn was Arabian, you can bet that box-office potential wins out over authenticity every day.  Only a couple of years ago, there was a furor that Chinese actress Zang Ziyi was cast in the lead of "Memoirs of a Geisha."  Of course, authenticity and cultural sensitivity should be the basis of casting (along with such minor considerations as talent and ability to pull off the role...), but...Zhang Ziyi?  If you could land her for a movie...wouldn't you?

*** Rainer at this writing is alive and well and celebrated her 100th birthday January 10th, 2010. She won back-to-back Oscars in 1935 and 1936, which she stated was "the worst possible thing" for her career. She has mostly stayed out of the lime-light, but occasionally does acting jobs that have struck her fancy--like a dual-role on "The Love Boat," in 1983.


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I've never seen this, though the concept intrigues. It reminds me of Kate H. playing Chinese in some film...the name eludes me. Poor Luise, though. Pity her back to back Oscar spoiled her career, and didn't spoil Spencer Tracy's.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Tracy was too facile...and actor for his career to be ruined by back-to-back Oscars.

And I'm surprised at your animosity to Tracy; LaHepburn loved him...shouldn't you?