It’s nice to see that Paul Muni would eventually get the recognition I always felt he deserved, even if it did come a few years later than I would’ve liked. He won Best Actor for Louis Pasteur the previous year, and was nominated again for Best Picture winner Emile Zola in ’37. Not only that, he also starred in this, The Good Earth, another Best Picture nominee that year. I haven’t rewatched Zola yet (though I probably should fairly soon), so I can’t compare Muni’s performances between the two films all that much. But, for what it’s worth, I was fairly pleased that The Good Earth managed a nomination for the big one, even if it’s not too much of a surprise when you look at its credentials for the era it was made in.
Muni is Wang Lung, a farmer in the northern farmlands of China, sometime just before the Chinese Revolution. Scraping by enough on his own, he is thrilled when he is selected to be married to one of the servant girls of the Great House, the rich people’s abode in the nearby village. He and his new wife O-Lan soon make a family for themselves, and the film details their trials and hardships as they try and survive whatever life happens to throw at them. There’s really not much more to the narrative than that, though plenty does happen in the film for Wang and O-Lan to persevere through, or try to in some cases. What the film lacks in a standardized narrative, it more than makes up for in sheer production value, as well as the performances of the leads, and a few of the supporting players as well. Being a 1930s historical epic, so to say, the rustic and thorough production value is the main draw, used to fully realize the setting and era the film takes place in, and indeed the production value is very well utilized; cinematographer Karl Freund even won an Oscar for his work capturing it all. Even with the film using Western actors to play the lead roles of Chinese characters, Muni and Luise Rainer (who plays O-Lan) do exceptional work, especially for it being as reserved as it is. Rainer, indeed, would win her second Best Actress Oscar for this, becoming the first actor to win consecutive Oscars, which might be a bit much considering how low-key her performance is here, but as I said earlier, it’s still very good and certainly memorable.
This isn’t a typical Hollywood film, of the times or otherwise, and that I think is what makes this as easy to appreciate as it is. The stars underact instead of over, there’s no real formula or strict adherence to customary narrative, and there isn’t even really a bad guy or villain of the piece (though the uncle character is pushed close to this territory a few times); this is merely a simple tale about people trying to survive in the wake of a hard life that never lets up, both in human obstacles and natural ones. Normally, I’d probably appreciate the shift in difference between a film like this and a typical Hollywood picture of the 1930s, but with The Good Earth, I only felt a little bit of gratification at both the difference and the film’s inherent value. I definitely did not come out of this singing its praises, as should be evident, and for all that it does do well, I just couldn’t get all that invested in it. It’s a solid picture, but it’s not an altogether entertaining one, and it’s really a shame that it almost has to be this way for the picture to even work as well as it does manage to do. Still, while this wasn’t exactly one for the win column, it absolutely wasn’t a loss, and given the lesser fare of these Best Picture noms that I seem to be trudging through, I’ll take whatever I can get in terms of pictures like these.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10