[1937.5] The Good Earth

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. Continue reading