The Good Earth ★★★★

In our modern-day PC culture, it seems downright distasteful to see actors like Paul Muni, Luise Rainer, and Charley Grapewin done up in yellow face to play Chinese farmers (Rainer's bald-faced German accent is especially humorous). But don't let that stop you from watching and enjoying this movie. It's remarkable that a film like this would even have been made in isolationist 1937 America, and that studios would have assumed there would be an audience for it. Though it might not pass today's standards of cultural sensitivity, "The Good Earth" makes a solid attempt at a thoughtful and intelligent peek into Chinese culture.

Muni and Rainer play the husband and wife of an arranged marriage who struggle together to eek out an existence in a harsh climate. The film is more sympathetic to the wife's point of view, and the film is even rather feminist in its way. We see a simple woman who has few choices and who largely accepts the patriarchal culture to which she is born, but we also see an emotionally strong and pragmatic woman who all along is making quite conscious and difficult decisions about what is best for her family while staying within the boundaries of acceptable husband/wife relations. Rainer gives a raw, physical performance, speaking very little but still managing to communicate much to the audience about what's in her mind. Muni is good too with a showier role, even if he seems much less authentic as a rural Chinese peasant.

The film also makes some interesting and relevant commentary about what wealth and affluence do to people. While this family remains poor, they certainly struggle plenty and face much hardship, but they retain a strong sense of community and family. As soon as they come into wealth and their material problems go away, they begin to squabble over petty differences. It's a testament to something I've always believed, which is that if you take away a person's problems, he's just going to invent new ones to replace them, no matter how comfortable he is or how much material wealth he has.

Rainer became the first person to win back-to-back acting Oscars when she received the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in this film. Karl Freund received an Oscar for Best Cinematography, for capturing a locust swarm on film among other impressive set pieces. "The Good Earth" was also nominated in the categories of Best Picture, Best Director (Sidney Franklin), and Best Film Editing (for Basil Wrangell's propulsive montages).

Grade: A

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