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The following onscreen dedication appears before the opening title: "To the memory of Irving Grant Thalberg we dedicate this picture-His last great achievement." Thalberg died on September 13, 1936 at the age of thirty-seven, a few weeks after principal photography was completed on The Good Earth. Although Thalberg became the head of production at M-G-M in 1924 and had personally supervised many of the studio's films, this was the first on which his name appeared. Many modern sources state that The Good Earth was the only film on which his name appears, but the 1939 M-G-M British film Goodbye, Mr. Chips also includes his name in a dedication.
After the opening credits and dedication, the following written prologue appears: "The soul of a great nation is expressed in the life of its humblest people. In this simple story of a Chinese farmer May be found something of the soul of China-its humility, its courage, its deep heritage from the past and its vast promise for the future." The following information about the production has been derived from The Good Earth story files in the M-G-M Collection at the USC Cinema-Television Library, contemporary news items, the pressbook and reviews: In October 1931, M-G-M executives, who had an option on Pearl Buck's best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, were offering a reported $75,000 for the screen rights but were having difficulty in finalizing the deal because Buck was traveling in China. On November 2, 1931, a Hollywood Reporter news item indicated that M-G-M's option was "running out" and Paramount was considering picking it up and producing a "synchronized silent" version in China, with an all-Chinese cast. By May 1932, M-G-M had secured the rights to the novel, and in mid-November 1932, M-G-M personnel arrived in China to film backgrounds and test Chinese actors. Several news items in trade publications and memos in the story files indicate that Thalberg originally intended to cast the picture exclusively with Chinese actors and had plans to shoot it in China.
Plans to film the entire production in China were apparently dropped at some point in 1933, but "authentic backgrounds" were shot there, and tests of Chinese actors continued throughout most of 1933 and early 1934. Letters in the story files to M-G-M executives from Buck, who was hired as a technical consultant on the project, discuss the best locations and time of year to film. Additional correspondence and memos between late 1932 and mid-1934 mention several M-G-M representatives in China, including Mrs. Bessie A. Ochs, an American who had lived there from childhood. Ochs regularly sent reports to the studio about the progress of pre-production. George Hill, who was initially set to direct the picture, went to China in 1933 to supervize location shooting and review screen tests. Film Daily and Hollywood Reporter news items on January 31, 1934 noted that the Nanking-based government officially denied M-G-M permission to film The Good Earth in China, and asked the unit still working to leave the country on the grounds that Buck's novel was "prejudicial to the dignity of the Chinese race." This order was later rescinded when M-G-M apparently reached an agreement with Nanking not to emphasize certain aspects of the book that the government felt were objectionable, and hired General Ting-Hsiu (Theodore) Tu as the "official" consultant on the film. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item in June 1934, some of the backgrounds and exteriors shot in China in 1932 and 1933 were included in the 1934 M-G-M film The Painted Veil (see below), as well the The Good Earth. In addition to tests and backgrounds, M-G-M personnel sent to China purchased large amounts of furniture and accessories that were used in the film.
M-G-M had purchased the rights to the story more than a year prior to the Theatre Guild's Broadway production of Owen Davis and Donald Davis' play, which starred Claude Rains and Nazimova. Both the novel and the play are credited onscreen as sources for the film, however, and Hollywood Reporter reported that M-G-M paid $125,000 to the Theatre Guild for the rights, plus a proposed $11,500 more for each additional week in the Broadway run beyond six weeks (the play ran for fifty-six performances). The first continuity in the story file is dated November 16, 1933, and was submitted by prominent M-G-M contract writer Frances Marion, director Hill's wife. A November 20, 1933 partial script by Marion included dialogue for screen tests that were to be made in China. A December 11, 1933 notation in the file notes that tests had already been made, but does not indicate whether or not the tests were based on Marion's script.
Following Hill's death by a self-inflicted gunshot wound on August 9, 1934, and Marion's serious injuries in an auto accident in mid-November 1934, she left the project. Her last dated treatment in the story files is November 8, 1934. Claudine West, Jules Furthman and DuBose Heyward had already worked on treatments and scripts prior to Marion's departure, and continued to do so. Other writers who came onto the project between late 1934 and 1936 included Marc Connolly, Tess Slesinger, Talbot Jennings, Franz Schutz and Marion Ainslee. In addition to these writers, Felix E. Feist wrote some test scenes.
Numerous memoranda within the story files indicate that the filmmakers were concerned with the negative effect that certain aspects of the novel might have in regard to China and the Chinese people. A memo dated August 26, 1936, delineates changes "made from the original in order to make the picture a completely sympathetic portrait of China." These included changing the novel's "bitter, ironic and futile tone"; writing a more positive ending; removing any references to "red beards," bandits or bad soldiers; deleting sexual situations; making the character "Lotus" an entertainer rather than a prostitute; playing down the love triangle of Lotus, Wang and Elder Son; eliminating the concubine of Wang in his old age; and creating a family group "with love and respect for loved ones." When The Good Earth was ready to be released, M-G-M planned to give onscreen credit solely to Claudine West and Talbot Jennings, but Tess Slesinger and Jules Furthman protested to the Writers Adjustment Committe of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, necessitating a review of all of the scripts and treatments submitted to the studio for the project.
A copy of the final script contained in the story files reveals extensive markings by different color pencils indicating which of the writers was the first to use each line of dialogue or situation, from Frances Marion's first script on. The final tally on contributions indicated that Jennings, Slesinger and West had contributed the greatest number of lines to the final script, and were to be credited onscreen, in that order. Connolly and Furthman received SAB credit for contributions to the dialogue, and Marion received SAB credit for contributions to screenplay construction. Schutz, Hayward and Ainslee did not receive SAB credit because the committee, composed of Patterson McNutt, Bradley King and Walter DeLeon, determined that while the latter writers had made some contributions, their respective contributions comprised less than 10% of the final screenplay. Additional information in the story files reveal that West was responsible for the "locust" sequence of the film, and that Peter Ballbush, Charles Trego and Slavko Vorkapich wrote the outline for the montage sequences used in the completed film.
Technical advisors hired from 1932 through 1936 include James Min "Jimmy" Lee, a Chinese USC student whom many memos in the file indicate contributed significant advice on the film. In China, and later California, General Tu continued to act as a technical advisor, as did a Dr. Y. S. Tsao. Though Tu is acknowledged in the pressbook and other contemporary sources as the most significant technical advisor on the film, documentation within the story file indicates that the production staff often felt that Tu's "advice" was interference rather than help, while Tsao and Lee contributed positively and significantly to the picture. A number of other technical advisors, as noted in the offscreen credits listed above, assisted in various aspects of Chinese culture, language and casting. Shortly after the August 1934 death of George Hill, W. S. Van Dyke was considered as his replacement. Later, Victor Fleming was announced as the film's new director. Van Dyke was again considered for the direction in 1936, but M-G-M executives decided to keep Van Dyke on their San Francisco project and turned The Good Earth over to Sidney Franklin. In addition to Franklin, who is the only director credited onscreen, Fleming directed some scenes, but apparently none after June 1936 when he suffered a serious relapse following a kidney operation. Czech-born director Gustav Machaty directed some process shots and Fred Niblo directed the second unit work.
Throughout the pre-production phase of the project, an extensive search for a suitable cast was made. News items and company records indicate that crews headed by George Hill, production manager Frank Messenger, and cameramen Charles Clarke and Russell Cully, among others, made a large number of tests in China while studio units tested Chinese-American actors in Culver City. A news item in Hollywood Reporter on November 30, 1935 stated that plans for an all-Chinese cast had been given up by Irving Thalberg because there were "not enough suitable Chinese actors."
Tests had already been made as early as 1933 of non-Asian actors, though, and names such as stage actress Kathleen Cornell, who was considered for the role of O-Lan, and Barbara Stanwyck and Nils Asther, who had been considered for the leading roles in January 1935, appeared on studio test sheets and in news items throughout the early pre-production phase of the picture. All through the casting process Chinese and Chinese-American actors were tested for various lead roles, often on the same days that caucasian actors were tested for the roles.
Charles Boyer was at one time considered for the role of "Wang." When Paul Muni was chosen, he was loaned to M-G-M by Warner Bros. in exhange for Robert Montomgery's services. Montgomery made the 1937 Warner Bros. film Ever Since Eve in fulfillment of M-G-M's part of the agreement. The most prominent Chinese American in contention for any role in the film was Anna May Wong, who was mentioned throughout 1935 as a strong possibility for "Lotus." Other Asian actresses seriously considered for the role were Lotus Lui, Sidney Fox and Mamo Clark. Non-Asian actresses tested for the role included Jean Parker, Steffi Duna, Dorothy Appleby and Suzanne Kaaren. A Daily Variety news item in December 1935 indicated that "various censorship angles" were causing problems if "anything approaching miscegenation" occured in the casting, indicating that if an Asian actress such as Anna May Wong portrayed "Lotus," the man cast opposite her must also be Asian. In addition, a news items in Daily Variety on July 13, 1936 stated that the Chinese government had threatened not to approve the film if any actors of Japanese descent were cast. The Sino-Japanese Conflict, which began in 1931 had escalated and by 1936, when shooting began, the Japanese were occupying large sections of China. The 13 July news item also noted that because of China's threats, several Japanese American actresses who were tested for the role of "Lotus" were therefore rejected by M-G-M. No specific names were located in available screen test records to indicate that any actresses tested for the role were Japanese, however.
For the role of "Elder Son," Asian actors Richard Loo, Mala, Philson Ahn and Philip Ahn were tested, as were caucasian actors Eddie Quillan and George Wolcott. According to notations in the story file, studio executives were very impressed with Philip Ahn's acting abilities, on several occasions calling him an "excellent actor," but considered him too "serious" for the role. Associate producer Albert Lewin noted in a memo that actor Keye Luke "deserves consideration-a slight possibility," but added that he "has become stereotyped for playing in Charlie Chan pictures." Despite Lewin's comments, Luke portrayed "Elder Son" in the film.
Among the actresses tested or considered for "Cuckoo" were Marjorie Gateson, Blanche Yurka and Rafaello Ottiano. Considered for the role of "Uncle" were Hal K. Dawson, George Barbier and J. Carrol Naish. For the role of "Old Mistress," which was not in the final film, the studio strongly considered either Pauline Frederick or Mrs. Leslie Carter, both noted stage actresses. Other actors tested for various roles included Willie Fung, a well-known character actor who frequently appeared in M-G-M productions, Sam "Sammy" Tong, Edward McWade and Leonid Kinsky. Many of the Chinese actors tested for major roles eventually worked on the film as extras or appeared in minor speaking roles. Of the fifteen actors credited onscreen, only seven are Asian, although the majority of the minor actors and extras were Asian, primarily Chinese-American actors. News items and the pressbook state that the number of Asian extras needed for the film was so large that scouts were sent to various cities on the West Coast that had large Chinese populations. The extent of such "scouting" May have been exaggerated, as were such publicity stories as impromptu "strikes" by Chinese extras who were not provided with traditional Chinese food for their lunches.
Most of the film was shot on location in the Chatsworth section of Los Angeles, not far from the intersection of Devonshire and Reseda Blvds., at the foothills of the San Fernando Valley. A large location site was constructed for the film to create the various exteriors at which much of the dramatic action takes place. According to the film's program and feature articles in contemporary magazines, the foothills were terraced in the manner of Chinese farms and planted with authentic crops which needed special care due to the length of the shoot. Hundreds of buildings were also constructed to create the villages and cities described in Buck's novel. Many years after filming took place the location, which was called "Wang's Village," became a housing development. In addition to the exteriors shot in China and the Chatsworth location, some backgrounds for the locust sequence were shot in Cedar City, Utah during an actual infestation.
According to memos in the story files, the locust sequence was shot in June 1936 by Niblo. Then, noted special effects men James Havens and James Basevi combined process shots and photographic effects with Niblo's shots of the actors "fighting off" the invading locusts. A December 1937 New York Times article on Basevi suggested that the density of the locusts on the ground was an effect created by combining actual dead locusts with old coffee grounds. A story file notation at this time states that Basevi was "doubling in locusts" with footage from Chatsworth and Utah, but does not indicate what was used.
The Good Earth was originally released in a sepia print, tinted and toned in a process that M-G-M revived in the late 1930s before the studio started to produce Technicolor pictures. A New York Times article noted that The Good Earth was the first important film to utilize the process for many years. John M. Nicholaus, head of M-G-M's laboratory supervised the operations. To enhance the "Chinese" look of caucasian actors, make-up man Jack Dawn created special facial inlays for cheeks, noses and teeth that were worn by the principals throughout the lengthy shooting schedule.
The film's premiere took place in Los Angeles at the Carthay Circle Theatre on January 29, 1937, followed by a New York premiere at the Astor Theatre on 2 Feb. News items reported extensive preparations for both premieres, especially in Los Angeles where art director associate Harry Oliver supervised the decoration of San Vicente Blvd. (the street on which the Carthay Circle Theatre was located) in a Chinese style. A fifty-foot replica of the novel was also constructed on a corner of the intersection of Wilshire and San Vicente Blvd. near the theater. Prominent writers P. G. Wodehouse, Rupert Hughes and Jim Tully were present at the premiere to write impromptu reviews and immediately send them across the nation via wire service. The premiere was broadcast over radio via the Mutual System and, according to a January 29, 1937 Hollywood Reporter news item, was the first premiere to be covered on a national network.
The film was named one of the Top Ten films of the year by Film Daily Year Book, The National Board of Review and New York Times. Luise Rainer won an the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as "O-Lan," earning her the second of two consecutive awards in that category, and marking the first time that consecutive awards were won by the same person in any acting category. The previous award had been for The Great Ziegfeld (see below). Karl Freund also won an Oscar, for Best Cinematography. Sidney Franklin was nominated for Best Director, but lost to Leo McCarey for The Awful Truth and the film lost the Best Picture award to Warner Bros.' The Life of Emile Zola ( and below). The 1937 awards also marked the first time that the special Irving G. Thalberg Memorial award was presented to an outstanding producer. Darryl Zanuck of Twentieth Century-Fox was the first recipient. In 1938, Pearl Buck won the Nobel Prize for her works on the Chinese people, including The Good Earth. Although Variety listed the picture as one of the top-twenty money-makers of 1937, M-G-M records specify that while the picture grossed $3,557,000 in domestic and foreign markets, the total negative cost of the production was $2,816,000 and resulted in a $496,000 loss for the company. In 1944 M-G-M filmed another Buck novel about China, Dragonseed, directed by Jack Conway and Harold S. Bucquet, and starring Katharine Hepburn and Walter Huston. Dragonseed, which was set during the Sino-Japanese conflict, has frequently been called a sequel to The Good Earth, but the characters are unrelated.