Friday, February 26, 2010

1937 - The Good Earth

New York is once again enveloped by a snowstorm, and as it stretches into its second day of near constant snowfall, what better way to pass the time indoors than watching movie outtakes. I stumbled across a fascinating collection of classic bloopers that Warner Brothers created on a yearly basis for about a decade or so. It is somehow reassuring to know that even the greats like Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis and James Cagney screwed up now and then as well. It is also abundantly clear that "Nuts!" was the curse word of the time.

P.S. Don't forget to vote for which early 1970s year we should cover next. Poll is on the right.

Yesterday began the journey into the ten-deep set of nominees involved in the battle for Best Picture of 1937...

The Good Earth
Sidney Franklin
Talbot Jennings, Tess Slesinger & Claudine West
(based on the novel by Pearl S. Buck)
Paul Muni, Luise Rainer, Walter Connolly, Tilly Losch, Charley Grapewin
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
2 wins, including Best Actress (Rainer)

Wang Lung (Muni) is but a simple Chinese farmer. He weds ex-slave O-Lan (Rainer) and the two carve out a living on their farm, raising three children along the way. Famine forces them to move to the big city to find work. But when O-Lan comes into some unexpected wealth, Lung begins to lose sight of what is truly important.

The first thing that smacks you in the face about The Good Earth is that, for a film that purports to be a celebration of Chinese heritage and Chinese people, it sure has a lot of white people in it. Every character in the film is Chinese and yet the main cast consists of the least Asian people imaginable. As Lung's father, Charley Grapewin (most famous for playing Dorothy's Uncle Henry in The Wizard of Oz) seems far more suited to portraying old codgers in Westerns. And both of Lung's wives sport European accents (which I guess is at least geographically closer to Asia than the Old West). Plus, and I can't be certain, but I think Paul Muni is attempting a Chinese accent. If he is, it's a horribly unsuccessful attempt.

The impressive cinematography and editing (both Oscar-nominated, the former winning) have a more modern sensibility than the film's 1937 release date might suggest. Despite the inherent implausibility of the film as a genuinely Chinese tale, director Sidney Franklin and his film-making collaborators, through their innovative style, create some breathtakingly effective sequences. Most notable is the looting of the city, which is followed by a suspenseful scene involving O-Lan's attempt to avoid a firing squad. Also thrilling is the locust plague, complete with several close-ups of the spindly critters. Not for the squeamish.

Paul Muni's performance is oddly immature. In fact, at times, he appears to be a simple-minded buffoon, especially when he laughs hysterically ... which he does a lot. Luise Rainer, on the other hand, is touching as O-Lan, winning the second of her back-to-back Best Actress awards. Despite that double win (her only two nominations, I might add), she has remained a far lesser-known actress than her contemporaries, which goes to show that Oscar isn't everything. It certainly hasn't affected her longevity, though, as she turned 100 years old last month, making her the oldest surviving Oscar winner.

1 comment:

  1. Once again, watching films from this era, it is necessary to accept that the leading performers were almost exclusively European or American. IMDB has some interesting trivia about The Good Earth where Anna May Wong wanted the lead, but Irving Thalberg wasn't satisfied with her audition. More importantly, with Paul Muni already cast, there was a rule in effect prohibiting men and women of different races from playing husbands and wives. Primitive times. I also wasn't too impressed with Muni (he did a much better job in the other nominated film The Life of Emil Zola.) Apparently, James Stewart was close to getting the part. I can't imagine what he would have done with the vocal part, with his stammering drawl. I thought Luise Rainer was excellent. Amazingly, she will be introducing The Good Earth in April when it will be shown at the Turner Classic Movies premier film festival. Kudos to her.

    While the make-up was passable, the accents were certainly off-putting. Walter Connolly and Charlie Grapwin didn't even bother trying to change their voice. As you said Matt, every time Grapwin talked he sounded like a gold prospector sitting around a campfire. Again nothing new. Eugene Palette sounded the same no matter what role he played.

    As to the film itself, it was engrossing, moving, and had some spectacular scenes. Definitely deserving of its nomination.