One of the big classic DVD releases next week will be "The Charlie Chan Chanthology"; a collection of six of the popular Charlie Chan mysteries from the 30's and 40's. The movies function as mysteries and work well at that level, but some modern audiences can't get past the sight of a Caucasian in heavy make up playing an Asian. It was a typical practice in Hollywood at that time, but one should keep in mind that all of these performances were not created equal. Even though Sidney Toler's performance of Chan was at times cliched, Chan was also often portrayed as the smartest person in the room. He was a sympathetic character that people could admire. The other side of this coin being, for example, Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in "Breakfast at Tiffany's". The less said about that, the better.
Which leads us to "The Good Earth", a drama that chronicles the rise, fall, and rise again of farmer Wang Lung and his family. The sight of Paul Muni, whom I was familiar with through "I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang", as Wang Lung was distracting when I first saw him. I was oddly reminded of Patrick Stewart in Cardasian make-up on an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation". However, Wang Lung is such a energetic optimist for most of the film, you end up focusing more on his character than his appearance. Wang Lung's wife O-Lan, played by Louise Ranier, spends most of the film offsetting Muni by looking sad and sallow. Ranier won a Best Actress Oscar for this role, and it looks well deserved. Although she's given much more dialogue in the film than in the book, Ranier still has to often communicate by looks instead of words, and she does this splendidly.
Although there are elements that seek to portray the individuality of China and its culture, the story is broadly a human one that anyone can relate to. In fact, the story dynamic often mirrors "Gone with the Wind", which would be released two years later. Both portray a family with modest prosperity who encounter disaster, drought and starvation, only to claw their way back up and become even richer than before, but at the cost of family. Repeatedly in "The Good Earth", Wang Lung emphasizes the importance and value in owning your own land. By the third time he said this, I half expected Scarlett O'Hara's father to step from behind a tree and start spouting about Tara.
Special mention should be given to the locust swarm sequence near the end. It was a big special effect/selling point for the film when it first came out, and It holds up as the most exciting part of the film. I've only seen one other film that tried a locust swarm like this, the German film "Nowhere in Africa", and the effectiveness of both sequences can stand side by side even though they are over sixty years apart.
In contrast to 1937, audiences today have far more options for this kind of story and can easily find more authentic productions (i.e. completely filmed in China with an entire cast of Chinese actors instead of just the supporting players). Still, one should never discount a well told story, which "The Good Earth" certainly is.
Seven out of Ten