Classic melodrama. Muni, in a powerful role--another marvelous offbeat characterization--is a simple rice farmer who weds Rainer, a kitchen slave, in an arranged marriage. Through incredible labor, Muni and Rainer make their little farm into a success, allowing Muni to buy many more rice
fields and to prosper. They produce three children, and all seems promising until severe drought turns the land into an unyielding crust. When famine sets in, the family begins to starve, forcing Rainer to feed her children cooked earth. Through a stroke of Rainer's good luck, the family's
fortunes are turned around, but their lives are ruined by Muni's greed. Too late, the stoic Muni learns the magnificent qualities of his loving wife.
Rainer is overwhelming as the self-sacrificing O-lan and deservedly won an Oscar for Best Actress, beating out Greta Garbo in CAMILLE and accomplishing the seemingly impossible task of winning back-to-back statuettes, having received the same award the previous year for THE GREAT ZEIGFELD.
This superlative adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Pearl Buck novel was three years in the making; it was Thalberg's last production, which he personally oversaw. He had never taken a film credit and died before THE GOOD EARTH was completed; to honor this young, driving force, who was
responsible for a string of majestic films, Mayer had the following inserted in the credits of THE GOOD EARTH: "To the memory of Irving Grant Thalberg we dedicate this picture, his last great achievement."
Thalberg sent George Hill, a talented but alcoholic director, to China to get background footage and gather important props. Hill's wife, Frances Marion, went along to do research since she was originally slated to write the screenplay. Hill and Marion returned with more than two million feet of
background footage, some of which was used in the released film. Victor Fleming, who replaced Hill, grew ill during production and had to be hospitalized. (The same thing happened to Fleming when he was at work on GONE WITH THE WIND three years later.) With costs mounting, Thalberg brought in
Sidney Franklin to replace Fleming.
There are several great sequences in THE GOOD EARTH, not the least of which are the terrifying mob scenes in which the palace is ransacked. The most astounding scene, however, is the invasion of the locusts. Hundreds of extras, Muni, Rainer, and family in the lead, took to the jeopardized fields
to combat the pests which blackened the sky, frantically digging fire lanes, disorienting the insects by banging gongs, then beating them with shovels, feet, and hands. Every known photographic gimmick up to that time was employed in the locust invasion scene. The Chinese location footage was used
as a backdrop, closeups of the locusts on a miniature soundstage were intercut, and special effects paintings were inserted on the film to produce a startling montage of the menace.
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- Review: Classic melodrama. Muni, in a powerful role--another marvelous offbeat characterization--is a simple rice farmer who weds Rainer, a kitchen slave, in an arranged marriage. Through incredible labor, Muni and Rainer make their little farm into a success, all… (more)