This article complements the up-coming Oz-Asia Festival here in Adelaide, looking at particular works about Asia and the ‘East’ through ‘Western’ eyes. Noble Prize winning American author Pearl S. Buck wrote and published The Good Earth in 1931. It was an instant best-seller, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. Legendary Hollywood producer, Irving Thalberg acquired the rights to make the film adaptation for MGM. It took four years to make with a then incredible budget of $2.8 million. Initially, Pearl S. Buck and Irving Thalberg wanted an all Chinese cast, but were prevented from achieving this by the relatively new Hays Office, which essentially censored all Hollywood scripts at the time. Furthermore, the Hays Office demanded over twenty re-writes for things that were considered offensive. Subsequently, many aspects of the original novel were tamed down to cater for what the Hays Office decreed were acceptable and appropriate for American audiences. At the time Pearl S. Buck’s book was hailed as a modern American ‘classic’; it does not hold that current status. However, it is still a good read. The movie version was adapted from a play version that had been successful on the Broadway stage starring Claude Rains and Alla Nazimova. The film adaptation is similar to the novel but the overt sexual aspects and relatively vicious and corrupt nature of some of the Chinese characters in the novel was significantly altered. Thalberg also wanted to shoot the film in China and there was some action here with the assistance of Chiang Kai-Shek. However, the Chinese government demanded particular controlling factors and influences. The film footage that was shot in China mysteriously disappeared on its way back to the USA. Thalberg basically re-created an entire Chinese village at a 500 acre farm in Porter Ranch, California, where the majority of the film was made. When the film was released in 1937 it received considerable critical acclaim. It was nominated for five Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Director (Sidney Franklin), Best Editing (Basil Wrangell), and won Best Cinematography (Karl Freund) and Best Actress (Luise Rainer). The film was popular but ultimately failed at the box-office due to its high production costs. It is today perhaps easy to judge and condemn The Good Earth, particularly for its use of non-Chinese actors, and there is certainly a high level of Asian stereotyping. However, the performances by most of the cast are done with an integrity and sincerity that is compelling. This is particularly the case with Luise Rainer and Paul Muni.
Both these terrific actors are now largely forgotten. Luise Rainer was the first American actress to win two Academy Awards for Best Actress, The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and The Good Earth (1937). Born in Germany in 1910 Luise Rainer only died a few years ago in 2014. Paul Muni is one of my favourite American actors of the early 20th Century. He was a ‘transformational actor’, similar to Daniel Day Lewis, in that he was well known and respected for his thorough and detailed preparation, and complete immersion into the character. This is evident in all his magnificent film performances, including the original and best Scarface (1932), I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), The Good Earth (1937) and Juarez (1939).
Paul Muni was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor five times, winning for his performance in The Story of Louis Pasteur. Muni, however, preferred to work in the theatre and returned to New York. Whilst he did make a few more films he primarily worked on the Broadway stage for the rest of his life, winning a Tony Award for Best Actor in 1955 for his performance as Henry Drummond in Inherit the Wind. I can’t encourage you enough to watch the major film performances of Paul Muni – he is truly wonderful. I also encourage you to watch The Good Earth. Despite its often cringe-making Asian stereotyping it is still a terrific film, particularly due to the performances of Luise Rainer and Paul Muni, as well as the cinematography by Karl Freund. Furthermore, The Good Earth was the last film made by Irving Thalberg, to whom the film is dedicated.