Good Earth, The (1937)

Good Earth, The (1937)

“What good is this land now?”

A poor Chinese farmer (Paul Muni) married to a former slave (Luise Rainer) flees with his starving young family to a city in the south, where they beg for food until Rainer stumbles upon a bag of jewels during a revolutionary uprising. Once they’re back on their now-thriving farm, Muni requires his grown sons (Keye Luke and Roland Lui) to work for him, and falls for a beautiful singer (Tilly Losch) who he takes as his second wife — but will Rainer approve of this arrangement?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • China
  • Farming
  • Luise Rainer Films
  • Paul Muni Films
  • Survival

MGM’s big-budget adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was Irving Thalberg’s final production before his death at age 37, and remains notable for netting Luise Rainer her second Best Actress Oscar in a row (after her Oscar-winning performance in The Great Ziegfeld). Peary doesn’t review The Good Earth in his GFTFF, but he does mention it in his Alternate Oscars, where he writes somewhat snarkily that Rainer stands out as the film’s “only Chinese peasant with an Austrian accent”, and concedes she “did a satisfactory job, even if she spent too much of the picture using a stunned, hurt expression, as if she’d just stubbed her toe and didn’t want anyone to know her pain” (ouch!).

I’m more impressed by Rainer’s expressive performance than Peary; while her accent is disconcerting (and of course it’s terribly disappointing that Chinese-American actors weren’t assigned to the lead roles), Rainer otherwise fully embodies this put-upon yet resilient female who is ultimately responsible for her family’s success, albeit behind the scenes.

In a particularly harsh and haunting scene, Rainer acknowledges that another baby has been born (we hear its cry), but insists to Muni that they are able to travel — and nothing more is seen or heard of this latest child. Muni is occasionally hammy but mostly effective as her husband, who seems like a straight-up fellow until he (predictably) falls for the wiles of a seductive singer (Losch):

Perhaps most impactful, however, is the realistic depiction of a family driven to literally eat dirt in order to stave off hunger:

These early sequences of gut-wrenching poverty make it easier to understand how and why Communist revolution was seemingly inevitable in China:

Karl Freund’s cinematography is noteworthy throughout, and the ending locust swarm sequence is particularly well handled:

This adaptation remains worth a look, and should be seen once by all film fanatics simply for Rainer’s performance.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Luise Rainer as O-Lan
  • Paul Muni as Wang Lung
  • Karl Freund’s cinematography
  • The impressive locust sequence

Must See?
Yes, once, for Rainer’s performance and several highly effective sequences. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.


  • Oscar Winner or Nominee


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