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The Good Earth (film)

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The Good Earth (film)

The Good Earth
Original film poster
Directed by Sidney Franklin
Victor Fleming (uncredited)
Gustav Machatý (uncredited)
Produced by Irving Thalberg
Screenplay by Talbot Jennings
Tess Slesinger
Claudine West
Based on The Good Earth 
by Pearl S. Buck
Starring Paul Muni
Luise Rainer
Walter Connolly
Tilly Losch
Charley Grapewin
Music by Herbert Stothart
Edward Ward
Cinematography Karl Freund
Edited by Basil Wrangell
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release dates
  • January 29, 1937 (1937-01-29) (United States)
Running time 138 mins.
Country United States
Language English
Budget $2,816,000[2]
Box office $3,557,000[2]

The Good Earth is a 1937 American drama film about Chinese farmers who struggle to survive. It was adapted by Talbot Jennings, Tess Slesinger, and Claudine West from the play by Donald Davis and Owen Davis, which was in itself based on the 1931 novel of the same name by Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck. The film was directed by Sidney Franklin, Victor Fleming (uncredited) and Gustav Machaty (uncredited).

The film stars Paul Muni as Wang Lung. For her role as his wife O-Lan, Luise Rainer won an Academy Award for Best Actress. The film also won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for Karl Freund. It was nominated for Best Director, Best Film Editing and Best Picture. Its world premiere was at the elegant Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles.


Farmer Wang Lung (Paul Muni) marries O-Lan (Luise Rainer), a lowly servant at the Great House, the residence of the most powerful family in their village. O-Lan proves to be an excellent wife, hard working and uncomplaining. Wang Lung prospers. He buys more land, and O-Lan gives birth to two sons and a daughter. Meanwhile, the Great House begins to decline.

All is well until a drought and the resulting famine drive the family to the brink. Desperate, Wang Lung considers the advice of his pessimistic, worthless uncle (Walter Connolly) to sell his land for food, but O-Lan opposes it. Instead, they travel south to a city in search of work. The family survives by begging and stealing. When a revolutionary gives a speech to try to drum up support for the army approaching despite rain in the north, Wang Lung and O-Lan realize the drought is over. They long to return to their farm, but they have no money for an ox, seed, and food.

The city changes hands, and O-Lan joins a mob looting a mansion. However, she is knocked down and trampled upon. When she comes to, she finds a bag of jewels overlooked in the confusion. This windfall allows the family to go home and prosper once more. O-Lan asks only to keep two pearls for herself.

Years pass. Wang Lung's sons grow up into educated young men, and he has grown so wealthy that he purchases the Great House. Then, Wang Lung becomes besotted with Lotus (Tilly Losch), a pretty, young dancer at the local tea house, and makes her his second wife. He begins to find fault with the worn-out O-Lan. Desperate to gain affection from Lotus, he gives O-Lan's pearls to Lotus.

When Wang Lung discovers that Lotus has seduced Younger Son (Roland Lui), he orders his son to leave. Then a swarm of locusts threatens the entire village. Using a strategy devised by Elder Son (Keye Luke), everyone unites to try to save the crops. Just when all seems lost, the wind shifts direction, taking the danger away. The near-disaster brings Wang Lung back to his senses. He reconciles with Younger Son. On the latter's wedding day, Wang Lung returns the pearls to O-Lan before she dies, exhausted by a hard life.


Paul Muni as Wang Lung, a farmer Tilly Losch as Lotus
Luise Rainer as O-Lan, Wang Lung's wife Charley Grapewin as Old Father, Wang Lung's father
Walter Connolly as Wang Lung's uncle Jessie Ralph as Cuckoo
Soo Yong as Aunt
Keye Luke as Elder Son
Roland Lui as Younger Son
Suzanna Kim as Little Fool, Wang Lung's simpleminded daughter
Ching Wa Lee as Ching, Wang Lung's neighbor and later steward of his lands
Harold Huber as Cousin
Olaf Hytten as Liu, the grain merchant
William Law as the gateman
Mary Wong as Little Bride


The film's budget was $2.8 million, a small fortune at the time, and took three years to make. A five-hundred-acre farm in Chatsworth, California, was transformed into a replica of Chinese farmland for this film.[3]

The movie script was more sympathetic to China than the novel had been. Wang Lung’s son was now a representative of modern China who goes to university and leads the villagers. The family is a wholesome affectionate unit, even the uncle who in the novel exploits Wang Lung, and the sexual aspect of Lotus is played down. The Hays office, which supervised each Hollywood script, demanded more than twenty rewrites to eliminate what it found offensive.[4] Before Herbert Stothart and Edward Ward were engaged to provide the music, negotiations took place with Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, who is known to have made some musical sketches for the score before the plan fell through.

Pearl Buck intended the film to be cast with all Chinese or Chinese-American actors. Irving Thalberg also envisioned casting only Chinese actors, but had to concede that American audiences were not ready for such a film. Though Anna May Wong had been suggested for the role of O-Lan, the Hays Code anti-miscegenation rules required Paul Muni's character's wife to be played by a white actress.[5] MGM offered Wong the role of Lotus, but she refused, stating, "You're asking me – with Chinese blood – to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters."[6] Many of the characters were played by Western actors made to look Asian with aid of make-up techniques developed by Jack Dawn and used for the first time in this film. However, some of the supporting cast did include Chinese American actors.

When MGM inquired into the possibility of making the film in China, the Chinese government was divided on how to respond. Initial hostility derived from resentment of the novel, which critics charged focused only on the perceived backwardness of the country while some government officials hoped to have control which would be gone if the film work was done outside China. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek himself intervened, perhaps at the behest of his wife, Mme. Chiang, whose American education made her an advocate for cooperation. Permission was granted on condition that the view of China be favorable, that Chinese government would supervise and have approval of shots done in China, and the unenforced stipulation that the entire cast be Chinese. The government in Nanjing did not foresee the sympathy the film would create and when MGM decided to shoot on location in China officials took extraordinary steps to control the production, forcing the studio to hire a Nationalist general to advise them on authentic settings and costumes (most of this footage was mysteriously lost when it was shipped home and had to be re-shot in California). There were reports that MGM distributed a different version of the film in China [7]

Thalberg died before the movie was completed. The film credits stated that this was his "last great achievement".[8]

Box office

According to MGM records the film earned $2,002,000 in the US and Canada and $1,555,000 elsewhere but because of its high cost incurred an ultimate loss of $96,000.[2]


The Good Earth was nominated for a total of five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Direction (Sidney Franklin), Best Cinematography (Karl Freund), and Best Film Editing (Basil Wrangell). In addition to the Best Actress award (Luise Rainer), the film won for Best Cinematography.[9]


  1. ^ Brown, Gene (1995). Movie Time: A Chronology of Hollywood and the Movie Industry from Its Beginnings to the Present. New York: Macmillan. p. 134.   Carthay Circle Theatre, Los Angeles.
  2. ^ a b c The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study .
  3. ^  
  4. ^ Hoban, James L., Jr., “Scripting The Good Earth: Versions of the Novel for the Screen,” in Elizabeth Johnston Lipscomb, Frances E. Webb, Peter J. Conn, eds., The Several Worlds of Pearl S. Buck (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994).
  5. ^ Hodges, Graham Russell. Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 44, 148, 60–67.
  6. ^ Quan, Kenneth (9 January 2004). "Profile of Anna May Wong: Remembering The Silent Star". Asia Pacific Arts. University of Southern California. Retrieved 12 April 2014. 
  7. ^ Zhiwei Xiao, “Nationalism, Orientalism, and an Unequal Treatise of Ethnography: The Making of The Good Earth,” in Suzie Lan Cassell, ed., From Gold Mountain to the New World: Chinese American Studies in the New Millennium (Alta Mira, 2002), pp. 277–79, 283–84.
  8. ^ Hay, Peter. MGM: When the Lion Roars
  9. ^ The Good Earth at Turner Classic Movies' website

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