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The Good Earth

The Good Earth

Based on Pearl S. Buck's 1931 novel, The Good Earth (1937) was the first of the author's works to be adapted for the screen. Buck, renowned for her depiction of Asian history and culture, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her novel, which remained on the bestseller list for two years. The overwhelming success of the book drew the attention of Irving Thalberg, famed production head at MGM, who saw an opportunity to make a truly epic film. Reportedly, Thalberg had a difficult time convincing Louis B. Mayer of the movie's potential, however. During the initial discussion of the project, Mayer was quoted as asking, "Who wants to see a picture about Chinese farmers?"

It was Thalberg who convinced Mayer of the book's merits, describing the awesome struggles overcome by a husband and wife who draw both triumph and despair from the land that they love. He persuaded Mayer of the film's potential and successfully embarked on a massive production to portray the seemingly insurmountable obstacles faced by a family in a small province of China. Through his vision, persistence and no small amount of money, Thalberg was able to produce an amazing facsimile of the grueling hardships faced by the simple farming family, including famine, revolution and swarms of locusts.

The film's budget was $2.8 million, a small fortune at the time, and took three years to make. Although Pearl Buck intended the film to be cast with all Chinese or Chinese American actors, the studio opted to use established American stars, tapping Paul Muni and Luis Rainier for the lead roles. Both had won Oscars® the previous year; Rainier for her role in The Great Ziegfield and Muni for the lead in The Story of Louis Pasteur. When questioned about his choice of the American actors, Thalberg responded by saying, "I'm in the business of creating illusions."

To foster this illusion, both Rainier and Muni visited San Francisco's Chinatown to observe the customs of the people there. When altering his physical appearance, Paul Muni avoided the obvious; he did not assume the "slanted-eyed look". Instead he employed more subtle techniques, shaving off half of his eyebrows and part of his scalp hair and losing a substantial amount of weight. The most notable shift in the actor is in the way that he moves. He seems to change his entire persona, capturing even the most subtle nuances to transform himself into a rural Chinese peasant. As for Luis Ranier, her part involved fewer lines than most of the other characters but relies more heavily on the use of expressions and movement.

At the time, Rainier was somewhat of a nonconformist in Hollywood, often appearing in public without makeup and wearing slacks as opposed to the requisite dress and heels. She was very critical of the film industry and quite vocal about her beliefs, stating that she was, above all, a stage actress and not interested in celebrity for its own sake. When she was nominated for an Academy Award® as Best Actress for her role in this movie, she insulted Academy members by stating that she would not attend the ceremonies, unless she was guaranteed an award. When Louis B. Mayer heard Rainier was staying home the night of the ceremony he was furious. He sent officials from the studio to Rainier's home where she was found wearing pajamas and curlers in her hair. She was instructed to dress immediately and then taken to the Awards dinner. The actress did win the Oscar® and accepted the award appearing only slightly disheveled.

The Good Earth was nominated for a total of five Academy Awards® including Best Picture, Best Direction (Sidney Franklin), Best Cinematography (Karl Freund), and Best Film Editing (Basil Wrangell). In addition to the Best Actress award, the film won for Best Cinematography.

Irving Thalberg died in 1936, just months before filming of The Good Earth was complete, never able to see his vision fully realized. Although he never credited himself on any picture, saying "credit you give yourself is not worth having," Louis B. Mayer made the following dedication at the beginning of the movie: "To the memory of Irving Grant Thalberg. We dedicate this picture, his last great achievement."

It was this same year that the Academy initiated the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. The award is given to recognize "the most consistent high level of production achievement for an individual producer" and continues to be a coveted honor today.

Producer: Irving Thalberg, Albert Lewin
Director: Victor Fleming (uncredited), Sidney Franklin, Gustav Machaty (uncredited)
Screenplay: Pearl S. Buck (novel), Talbot Jennings, Tess Slesinger, Claudine West Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Cinematography: Karl Freund
Film Editing: Basil Wrangell
Original Music: Herbert Stothart
Principal Cast: Paul Muni (Wang), Luise Rainer (O-Lan), Walter Connolly (Uncle), Tilly Losch (Lotus), Charley Grapewin (Old Father), Jessie Ralph (Cuckoo), Soo Yong (Aunt), Keye Luke (Elder Son), Roland Lui (Younger Son).
BW-139m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.

by Mary Anne Melear



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