Paul Muni, Luise Rainer. A faithful adaptation of the Pearl S. Buck novel about a Chinese farming couple whose pleasant life is torn apart by financial conflict. 1937/b&w/138 min/NR/fullscreen.
MGM's status as the "class" studio was fully engaged when production chief Irving Thalberg took on this expensive, serious adaptation of Pearl Buck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. A smooth entertainment with a stiff portion of this-is-good-for-you seriousness, The Good Earth
epitomizes Thalberg's idea of Art, which was also the prevailing idea of the period he dominated in Hollywood. The story follows Wang Lung (Paul Muni), a humble farmer, who makes an arranged marriage to a slave, O-Lan (Luise Rainer). The couple's great struggle is to procure--and then, against withering odds, keep--a piece of land, ownership of which makes the difference between self-determination and near-slavery. The film's physical production is truly eye-filling, with location shooting in China providing exterior shots and backdrops (and blending seamlessly with the footage shot in the U.S.). No wonder the great cinematographer Karl Freund won an Oscar for the photography, which includes an awesomely staged locust plague.
Also copping an Oscar was Luise Rainer for best actress--her second consecutive award, after The Great Ziegfeld. Rainer's underplayed portrait of self-effacing stoicism is a contrast to Muni's broader performance, although in some odd way he's exactly right for his role. Caucasian actors play the main characters (Walter Connolly is the family's bothersome, and tiresome, know-it-all uncle), with Asian actors--including Keye Luke--filling out the supporting parts. The blend of sobriety and hokum is vintage Thalberg, and this is the one MGM movie with an onscreen dedication to the young dynamo; he died during production, age 37. --Robert Horton