7:15am PST – The Good Earth (1937) – Epic adaptation of the Pearl Buck classic about Chinese farmers battling the elements. Cast: Walter Connolly , Tilly Losch , Paul Muni , Luise Rainer Dir: Sidney Franklin BW-138 mins, TV-PG
Not to take anything away from James Dean, but there’s a certain amount of injustice at work in the fact that Dean, who only starred in three films (all of them superb), is better known than Paul Muni, an Oscar winner who dominated the prestige picture throughout the 1930s.
While it’s been reported that Muni’s career was cut short after a contract dispute with Jack Warner ended his relationship with Warner Brothers, that shouldn’t matter because the great actor’s body of work is still made up of at least 4 outright masterpieces: Scarface (1932), I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), and tomorrow’s pick, an emotionally rich and sweeping epic adapted from the Pulitzer-winning Pearl S. Buck novel of the same name.
The story opens on the wedding day of Wang Lung (Muni). It’s an arranged marriage with a freed slave, O-Lan, and Wang’s main concern is that she’ll be homely. She’s not. She’s Luise Rainer (whose work here would win her the first of two Best Actress Best Female Actor Oscars in a row). Over the next decade or so they raise a family and suffer through terrible famine and war, but it’s only when Wang becomes prominent and wealthy that real unhappiness sets in.
Filmed at MGM and executive produced by wunderkind Irving Thalberg, The Good Earth lacks nothing in budgetery sweep and scope, but seventy years on it remains compelling and grand entertainment because in all the spectacle the intimacy is never lost.
The Good Earth is only a historical epic until you look closer. At heart you’ll find nothing more complicated than a love story between a peasant farmer and a kitchen slave.
Keep an eye out for the locust attack. The special-effect of the locust swarm appearing in the sky and closing in on Wang’s farm was achieved by pouring coffee grounds into water, and it looks more convincing than any CGI shot could.