Luise’s third American film, The Good Earth is perhaps the one for which she is most remembered, the film which cemented her place in Oscar history and the film which proved a turning point, not only in her contract with MGM, but her career in Hollywood as a whole.
This epic story of love and loss is based on the Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Pearl S. Buck, first published in 1931 and inspired by the author’s time living in China during the 1920s. Buck was an American, born to Southern Presbyterian missionaries in Hillsboro, West Virginia in 1892. Her parents were often stationed in China and Buck spent much of her childhood there, speaking both English and Chinese fluently. After graduation in 1914 she returned to China where she married John Lossing Buck, an agricultural economist, with whom she settled in Nanxuzhou, a small rural town. It was here that she was inspired to write and her stories were published throughout the 1920s in such magazines as The Nation, The Chinese Recorder and The Atlantic Monthly. Her first novel, East Wind, West Wind was published in 1930, followed in 1931 by The Good Earth. It was an immediate success; the best-selling novel in the US of 1931/32 it won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Howells Medal. Further novels (including two sequels to The Good Earth) followed, and in 1938, less than a decade after her first book, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Buck continued to write and died in 1973, leaving a vast collection of stories, poetry, biography, drama and more. The Good Earth has never been out-of-print and has maintained its success for the best part of a century. In 2004 it returned to the bestsellers lists when Oprah Winfrey included it as a selection in her
phenomenally influential Book Club.
Casting wasn’t the only hurdle to breach in the run up to filming; Louis B. Mayer himself expressed reservations about the material, telling Thalberg, “The public won’t buy pictures about American farmers, and you want to give them Chinese farmers?”. Thalberg persisted and he approached MGM President, and head of their parent company, Loew’s Incorporated, Nicholas Schenck to back him. He did so, and on 30th October 1935 it was announced that MGM’s next great epic would be The Good Earth, starring Paul Muni and Luise Rainer, directed by Victor Fleming. Originally the services of director George Hill had been acquired, and his wife, Frances Marion, an MGM contract writer, had submitted a continuity script based on the novel and the play. Some exterior location shots were filmed by Hill in China during 1932 and 1933 (later used in The Good Earth and The Painted Veil (1934)) but the production came to a halt when Hill committed suicide at his beach house on 9th August 1934. The project went on hold while a plethora of other writers were enlisted to work on the screenplay. Over the course of the next two years no less than nine more writers worked on parts of, or the whole of the story; Claudine West, Jules Furthman and DuBose Heyward had already worked on treatments and scripts prior to Marion’s departure, and continued to do so with other writers who came onto the project between late 1934 and 1936 including Marc Connolly, Tess Slesinger, Talbot Jennings, Franz Schutz and Marion Ainslee. Felix E. Feist contributed to test scenes. There was some concern about the portrayal of the Chinese in some sections of the novel and MGM asked for rewrites to give a wholly sympathetic view of China. The majority of these were to bring the family closer together and to excise any references to ‘Lotus’ being a prostitute (she becomes a singer in the film). The affair between ‘Lotus’, ‘Wang’ and ‘Older Son’ was also toned down to avoid upset. In the final feature the story begins with a worthy epigraph: “The soul of a great nation is expressed in the life of its humblest people. In this simple story of a Chinese farmer may be found something of the soul of China – its humility, its courage, its deep heritage from the past and its vast promise for the future.”
Filming began in earnest in 1936 with Victor Fleming at the helm, however, due to ill-health he was quickly replaced by Sidney Franklin. 500 acres of countryside outside Los Angeles were converted into Chinese farmland and Chinese farmers were brought in to cultivate crops for the length of the shoot. The area was landscaped to match real locations and was peppered with farmer’s huts and out-buildings which doubled as cast and crew quarters. In response to concerns raised about the depiction of China as a miserbale place for its people, especially peasants, Thalberg suggested that the Chinese government send an ambassador to oversee proceedings and allay any fears. Shortly afterwards General Ting-Hsiu Tu arrived with his family to advise the director on Chinese custom and maintain accuracy; he was also replaced, however, when the
Chinese authorities accused him of allowing a politically dangerous film to be made. Only a screening of some scenes from the film to Madame Chiang Kai-Shek (the Chinese leader’s wife) and some Chinese scholars saved the film from an interminable delay, with Madame expressing her amazement that Luise was not a Chinese actress (she would remain in touch with Luise for the next 70 years, sending a Christmas gift each year until her death, aged 105, in 2003). All of this international diplomacy slowed down production and created an unpleasant atmosphere in which to work. Luise had already met her future husband Clifford Odets and their courtship was in full swing, but Odets was finishing his work in Hollywood and was under pressure from the Group Theatre to return to them with a new play (The Silent Partner). He left for Connecticut in mid-1936 and the following hiatus became a burden to both of them. They communicated regularly by telegram and letter but it was no way to start a relationship.
The Good Earth premiered in Los Angeles on 29th January 1937 (two weeks after Luise and Clifford were married). It was a critical and commercial success and, since Thalberg’s untimely death, it marked the last film of it’s kind for some time as Mayer concentrated on wholesome family entertainment. Luise insists that the film made a profit, although papers at MGM contradict this claim – she has always said that Mayer would never admit that the film was the huge success that it was, that he would never allow the film to be seen as MGM’s greatest achievement. It was released worldwide in June of 1937 and went on wholesale release in the USA shortly afterwards. In March 1938 it was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Luise made history by picking up her second Oscar in a row for Best Actress.
When it came to Oscar night, Luise herself, didn’t expect to win twice in a row and did not intend to be at the ceremony. She had spent the day with her husband in San Francisco and was driving back when she called home to check all was well. Her maid, who was frantic, told her that she must return quickly and get to the Biltmore Hotel as the rumours were rife that she had won again. There followed a blazing row between Luise and Clifford, he of the opinion that it was worthless and she should not attend; Luise did not want him to accompany her, but he did so. They arrived late and Luise insisted that they walk around the block as she was in tears and did not wish to be seen in such a state; many reporters commented on how inappropriate it was that Clifford wore a simple day suit to such an important occasion for his wife. The film lost out to The Life of Emile Zola (1937) as Best Picture, but won another Oscar for Karl Freund’s cinematography. Luise’s most recent co-star, Spencer Tracy, won the first of his two consecutive Best Actor awards, in Captains Courageous (1937). It’s fair to assume that the Oscar win wrong-footed Louis B. Mayer somewhat. Between the end of filming and the award ceremony two more films had been completed and released (The Emperor’s Candlesticks and Big City) and a third was already underway (The Toy Wife). None of these roles are significantly challenging in light of her historic double.
Wardrobe by Dolly Tree
Photographed by Karl Freund¹, A.S.C.
Film Editor: Basil Wrangell
Montage by Slavko Vorkapich
Paul Muni as Wang
Luise Rainer¹ as O-lan
Walter Connolly as Uncle
Tilly Losch as Lotus
Charley Grapevine as Old Father
Jessie Ralph as Cuckoo
Soo Yong as Aunt
Keye Luke as Elder Son
Roland Lui as Younger Son
Suzanna Kim as Little Fool
Ching Wah Lee as Ching
Harold Huber as Cousin
Olaf Hytten as Liu, Grain Merchant
William Law as the Gateman
Mary Wong as the Little Bride
¹Academy Award winner
²Academy Award nomination
From the archives:
Film Pictorial / 1 January 1938 / UK
Cover photo with Paul Muni, from The Good Earth
Woman the Drudge – A poignant study by Luise Rainer in The Good Earth by Trevor Allen