The Good Earth (1937)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Good Earth</strong> (1937)

(On Cable TV, February 2019) In looking for adjectives to describe The Good Earth, “grotesque” is one of the best I can find. It certainly wasn’t made to deserve such a description, nor was it received as such at the time … but time moves on. Today, an American writer would think twice about writing a novel entirely set in rural China, but Pearl S. Buck (writing from Nanking) was up to the challenge—and had the empathy to pull it off all the way to a Nobel Prize for Literature. The result was even a best-seller. Today, no Hollywood studio would dare shooting a China-set film with all-Chinese character using largely California-built sets and all-Caucasian main actors. But here we are: In the 1930s, I have a feeling that The Good Earth was perceived as daring, world-aware, perhaps even progressive in depicting an entirely different reality from the average American moviegoer. Today, though… The entire film seems like a gleeful act of extreme cultural appropriation, with such white-bread actors as Paul Muni and Luise Rainer playing Chinese farmers in obvious makeup. It doesn’t help that this long and epic depiction of Chinese peasant life will tax anyone unwilling to have a long sit. While the plot does have its highlights (locust swarm, civil war, etc.), it does remain a very mannered take on a long story and it takes a fair amount of fortitude to pay attention throughout. Still, for today’s audience it’s the brazenness of having a (nearly) all-Caucasian cast play Chinese characters that gets the most attention. At least we can fall back on the idea that the film does portray its characters with a fair amount of sympathy and well-researched details: for all of the weirdness of the casting and setting, the stereotypes are kept at bay and the film seldom turns to cheap Orientalist clichés along the way. Still, grotesque isn’t a bad adjective. It may best be applied to Katharine Hepburn in the not-dissimilar Dragon Seed, but it’s certain appropriate for The Good Earth as well.

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