I will be watching all 10 nominees from 1937 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it.
The most obvious anachronism in the film adaptation of The Good Earth is the whitewashing. Paul Muni (Chicago by-way of Ukraine) and Luise Rainer (Düsseldorf) are not Chinese, whereas the characters, Wang Lung and O-Lan, are Chinese. Yes whitewashing is inauthentic and detracts from the overall believability of the film. Because I know Muni and Rainer are White playing Chinese, the hyper-sensitive culture within which I have watched this movie forces my brain to identify this fact and constantly reminds me of it. In 1937 the industry might have had many reasons to hire white actors: budget (no), racism (maybe), lack of qualified, famous and available Chinese actors (probably). This point is uninteresting.
What about the ‘Earth’ is ‘Good?’ The title is an non-exhaustive metaphor for a noun/metaphor combination that could mean any number of things, but in this film adaptation of Nobel Prize for Literature Winner Pearl Buck’s stunning The Good Earth, which follows the story of human sadness (Good) as the dirt bites back (Earth) and is probably allegory for the tides of Chinese statehood at the turn of the 20th Century. Our characters are metaphors, say, of the competing forces that shaped China during the shift from the final years of Mandated Qing through the sapling stages of the Republic. Throughout the course of Wang Lung’s life, things happen, and The Good Earth follows his quintessentially human story (Good) as he reacts to the different hardships, mostly poverty. His and his wife’s, and eventually his children’s, lives rely on the fickle arid passively dramatic land (Earth) for sustenance and for well-being. Goodness is necessarily of the Earth and wonderfully abstract and confusing. The Good Earth is a story of human suffering, and that it is of Chinese substance is a function of Pearl Bucks’ own formative experience. The Good Earth novel won the Nobel Prize not because it peeled back the curtain, per se, to a wider audience, but because it globalized Occidental and Oriental in a manner theretofore unknown. It is our Earth.
We believe Wang Lung to be fallible and because he is human, the audience must believe the timeline of events (if we believe he is the reliable narrator); and we do. The Good Earth mostly avoids Deus ex Machina or ad hoc fallacies that damage the pacing of a movie and undermine its credibility, except when O-Lan “finds” the pearl that allows them some room to breathe. If we follow the logistics of Wang Lung’s attempt to provide for himself and his family, they all die without the convenient timing of the 1912 Revolution happening right then and there. But the audience knows to allow for this sort of stimulus because in the larger scope of Story, the primary characters cannot just die without cause. That said, we believe that Wang Lung’s upward struggle and eventual mobility takes time and some strokes of good fortune, whose odds may be increased either intentionally or not. Time, as it turns out, moves Earth.
The Earth is Good because place, conceptually, allows flora and fauna to flourish, sometimes together and sometimes apart. The Earth is a conduit for Good people, Good animals, Good vegetables and grains and Good for Goodness’ sake, which is a universal endeavor worth fighting for. If we follow the story from O-Lan’s perspective, rather than O-Lan cum Wang Lung, we see and react to a very different tale, one of suffering as the reward for a bastion of hard work and no love lost. Buck and the movie’s team of screenwriters knew this. For where is the Goodness in a cruel Earth?
Muni’s The Life of Emile Zola won Best Picture in 1937, against which The Good Earth is hard to judge. Both films tackle political upheavals around the turn of the 20th Century, though through the lens of completely different cultures and processes. The American experience more completely reflected a Western on than an Eastern one during this decade, which again we note with the true, anachronistic whitewashing of The Good Earth‘s lead roles. Today, The Good Earth more closely aligns with the American Dream trope so the film would connect more easily with the Western audience, who might have seen it as more of a taboo than as an experience that represented them in the late 1930s.