The Good Earth
An epic romance based on a hugely popular novel, a cast of thousands, famine, war, forbidden love
Nope, not Gone with the Wind The Good Earth (1937). Released just two years before the iconic classic based on Margaret Mitchell's best-seller, in an era when sweeping sagas were what Hollywood did best, The Good Earth brought to the screen the powerful story that won author Pearl S. Buck a Pulitzer Prize. Paul Muni and Luise Rainer star as Wang Lung and O-Lan, a farmer and kitchen slave, respectively, who meet on their wedding day in late-1800s China. Together, they start a family and work in Wang Lung's field, prospering when the farm is fruitful and suffering when drought strikes. Over the years, their life together is threatened by starvation, locusts, uncontrollable mobs, greed, and lust, but the land proves to be their anchor, steadying them in times of trouble and reminding them of what's really important. Hollywood hasn't produced movies like The Good Earth in a long time, and not just because digital technology has made it possible to film big, complicated scenes without vast sets and thousands of extras. The Good Earth has an unhurried, ultra-straightforward feel that most modern movies can no longer get away with (when they try, as in Frank Darabont's The Majestic, the result is an awkward over-earnestness that rings false) the characters have simple motivations, the dialogue is virtually free of sarcasm and cynicism, and the film's moral lessons are unambiguous. As a result, The Good Earth may seem quaint and old-fashioned to contemporary viewers (there's also the fact that you can pick out all of the main characters because they're the only ones played by Caucasian actors, but that's a different discussion altogether), but it's a classic for good reason. Muni and Rainer both give sincere performances (Rainer's earnest, self-sacrificing O-Lan is somewhat reminiscent of Olivia de Havilland's Melanie in Gone with the Wind another similarity between the two films); Rainer won her second consecutive Best Actress Academy Award for the role, becoming the first person to win back-to-back Oscars. And Karl Freund's Oscar-winning cinematography is still impressive, especially in the locust scenes. The Good Earth may not have succeeded on the same scale as Gone with the Wind, but as an example of old Hollywood's style and values, it remains a landmark film. Warner Home Video presents the title in a good full-screen transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a source-print that unfortunately has some streaks and other flaws, as well as occasional graininess; presumably the print hasn't been cared for well. Audio options include English and French mono tracks, as well as English, French, and Spanish subtitles. The list of extras features the trailer, an old newsreel clip, and the 20-minute short "Hollywood Party." Painfully dated (though interesting from a cultural perspective), the short ostensibly takes place at an Asian-themed tea party and is really just an excuse to trot out some dancing girls and reinforce a lot of stereotypes. Keep-case.