Thursday, January 6, 2011

1937 - THE GOOD EARTH, MGM's super expensive production about very poor Chinese peasants

MGM's big production about Chinese peasants comes off like an extended soap opera with a bunch of occidentals wearing oriental makeup which is part of the problem.  The filmmakers worked hard to take the novel and make it acceptable to 1930's audiences.  They made many changes to the book even though they claimed they were completely faithful. 

This is a typical MGM large scale production where every aspect of the production is carefully worked out and then dumbed down to appeal to middle class audiences. The farmer Wang Lung marries the slave O-Lan a very hard worker who he never appreciates until she dies.  They have a series of adventures as he becomes more successful and turns into a Chinese J.R. Ewing complete with a sexy mistress played by the dancer Tilly Losch another Caucasian.  The big climax comes at the end of the film with a locust attack on his fields which looks pretty impressive for 1930's special effects.

Realistically, for a 1937 film MGM wasn't about to risk a big production on oriental actors.  Paul Muni, who had started his career playing gangsters and somehow ended up as the go to actor for prestige film projects plays the simple humble farmer.  Muni comes off as a white guy playing a Chinese farmer as if he were some kind of simpleton.  Lousie Rainer is his wife who is virtually his slave.  Rainer was smart enough to keep her mouth closed and act most expressively with her eyes and face, she is very effective.

In keeping with the theme of complete offensiveness in its portrayal of Chinese culture, The Good Earth DVD includes a technicolor short called Hollywood Party where you get to see a bunch of Hollywood actors engage in some outrageous stereotypical oriental behavior.  A fitting inclusion to a somewhat offensive film about Chinese culture.

138 minutes

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