Epic That Catches The Spirit Of A Nation
A review of The Good Earth by John Milford
[This article first appeared in Film Pictorial magazine, 1st January 1938]
WHEN, tucked away somewhere in your morning paper, you read a story from China to the effect that, owing to the floods (or maybe the drought) the crops have failed and millions of Chinese will face death and starvation, you are doubtless sorry. But China is a long way off, and perhaps it is a little difficult to comprehend, isn’t it? When, however, you see in this film the dried earth bringing starvation, the peasants grovelling with their hands deeper and deeper to try to find a little moisture in the soil, and the peasant wife boiling dry roots to try to find some nourishment for the starving family, then, and only then, will you have some slight idea of the agonies this country has to endure.
For this picture tells the whole history of a man and his wife. Opening with the man’s wedding day, you see him going to the rich woman’s house to get his bride – one of the slaves in the house. Cowed, lacking in spirit, giving her husband a shock if she ever speaks more than half a dozen words at a time, she is a typical downtrodden daughter of the great and mysterious country where another life is… what? But her husband has ambition. He has a field of his own; he gets two and dreams of the day when he will possess five. He prospers – until the drought makes him join the fleeing multitudes who go off to the big city in search of work and food. But comes the day when nature restores the balance and back to the land go the man and his wife, with their ever-increasing family.
For a brief period the film is inclined to wander a little off the rails when the prospering farmer goes to a night haunt and comes under the spell of a dancing girl, but it soon gets back to the epic standard that makes this production really great, and culminates in a scene that is astounding. This is a plague of locusts. How it was done I don’t know. But it is terrifyingly realistic, and I found myself getting nearer and nearer to the edge of my seat. Beginning with a low hum, a few hundred black specks are seen flying across the country. Gradually the low hum gets louder and louder, and the few hundreds become millions. The screen is black with locusts. All the dreams and the hopes of harvest are vanishing, for the pests will eat everything. The farmer’s son remembers that, at college, he was told the locusts would be scared off by smoke and fire. Frantically the farmers and his labourers build fires; but the locusts remain. There is only one hope: the wind. If that changes and blows in a certain direction, the locusts will be swept away with it. We wait, breathless, and then – we, too, feel like cheering with the farmer and those on the screen as suddenly the wind veers, the millions of pests are swept away, and the harvest is saved.
This is a supreme piece of screencraft. It is vital, brilliantly acted and directed with intelligence and amazing ability. The spirit of a great nation has been caught. All its miseries, its occasional happiness (precious little of this), its constant battlings with poverty and warring nature, are depicted in a manner that stamps Sidney Franklin as one of the best six directors in the studios.
And what of the players? Luise Rainer gets all my bouquets. From the first moment when, as a slave, she comes to meet the man she is to marry, so interprets the downtrodden soul so realistically that it is most moving to watch. Remember the glittering and attractive woman of The Great Ziegfeld as you gaze at this surprising transformation. Paul Muni is only a short way behind, though once or twice I thought he was groping a little. But it would be churlish to find fault in such a worthwhile production. Of course, it is grim, but it is dealing with a grim subject; yet one that I do believe, will hold your attention and fascinate you all the time. Of this I am certain. It will take something exceptional to depose it from the top of the Academy Awards.