Sidney Franklin’s The Good Earth (1937) is based on Pearl Buck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about Chinese peasants toiling under the hardships of famine, revolution and a thoroughly terrifying locust plague.
One of producer Irving Thalberg’s pet projects begun before – but released after – his death, the story is that of an introvert; young O-Lan (Viennese actress Luise Rainer looking and behaving remarkably convincingly as an Oriental). A slave in a ‘great house’ she is sold in marriage to farmer, Wang Lung (Paul Muni, a bit over the top and out of his depth on this occasion).
O-Lan and her husband work the land and are granted a son. But Wang’s father (Charles Grapewin) and freeloading uncle (Walter Connelly) are superstitious. Eventually their greatest fears are realized when a devastating famine wipes out all of Wang’s crops. Impoverished and forced to flee from the growing ominous shadows of revolution – O-Lan is nearly assassinated by revolutionary soldiers for stealing some jewels from the now decamped ‘great house.’
In a sequence that must rank among the finest Hollywood is ever committed to film, the estate is stormed by starving peasants, ransacked with terrifying speed, leaving O-Lan to be crushed under foot. Trampled, but alive, she awakens to watch as a firing squad shoots many of the peasants for their actions.
But before she can be shot the army is recalled to fight. The reprieve is bittersweet. Giving the jewels to Wang, he mounts a campaign to regain his land. But the plot turns sour when Wang decides to take up with a wanton loot player, Lotus (Tilly Losch), a woman who uses Wang for his money, then turns to his eldest son for affection.
Distraught, Wang banishes both his son and Lotus from the ‘great house’ while O-Lan, who has never fully recovered from her injuries sustained during the looting, looks on. However, before the harvest and exile can take place, a horrifying plague of locust descend on the crops. This sequence is one of the most viscerally disturbing.
Wang’s son comes up with the idea to set ablaze part of the fields to create a smoke barrier between the locust and the rest of the crops. The plan works and Wang’s faith in his son is restored. O-Lan, grateful for the small mercies God has shown them, lies on her deathbed, even as Wang and the rest of the family celebrate the marriage of his son to another Chinese woman. For sheer spectacle and magnificent performances The Good Earth is as fine a film as any Hollywood has ever made. It should be seen by everyone.
Warner’s DVD transfer on The Good Earth is perhaps a tad below par, but still quite viewable. The gray scale in many scenes has been rendered with care. Age related artifacts are perhaps a bit more prevalent on this occasion but still do not distract. Several scenes have an excessive amount of film grain that is just a little distracting – though still, not terribly. Contrast levels are perhaps darker than one would have expected, with fine details often lost during night scenes. The audio is mono, as it should be, and presented at a reasonable listening level. Extras amount to two short subjects and a trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)