The Good Earth

from Hollywood’s golden era to the orient imagination

1.     Introduction - from curiosity to prejudice

Exotic, a word for a faraway land, a western word for eastern world of curiosity. Earlier back to 13th century, European empires started to pave the way for the exotic eastern land in drive of curiosity and of desire for the “Land of Gold” depicted by Marco Polo, but it was not until late 19th century, after the capital expansion on Japan and Korea, did the western countries finally unveil the mask of China through the earliest coastal trade posts like Shanghai and Guangzhou, under which the imagination of China as a rich and powerful empire started to fade out. But westerns never managed to reveal the mask of its cultures. This all along curiosity still serves as a breeding ground for art creation and art practices for centuries, from literature to painting, from poetry to play, and as time marches to 20th centuries, film as a new path as art practice inevitably heritage the drive of exploring eastern cultures. However, in capitalism system, China’s image had soon turned into a weak man, which formed the western’s perplexing feeling for Chinese: on one hand, China has the culture with history of over 5000 years and has formed its own aesthetic and philosophical system, so the western’s curiosity stays on and even has turned to a kind of attraction; on the other hand, the unenlightened feudal social structure of China causes the prejudice from western world, and this leads all the way to Said’s book on orientalism.

In 1931, a book named The Good Earth was published, the author was Pearl Sydenstricker Buck, an American writer who had spent nearly 40 years of her life in China, and the book was like a bomb in U.S. that it was the best seller of both 1931 and 1932, and the book again kindled the western’s imagination on China, especially a China in its rural unenlightened environment. Soon after the publish, the book was adapted into a play, and then the copyright was bought by MGM, one of the big five studios in classical Hollywood era to make it into a Hollywood film. However, the Hollywood was then facing challenges from home and abroad. 

To focus on the Hollywood film in 1930’s, one can not escape the account of sound and the classical Hollywood narration system it helped to form. As David Bordwell and his friend noted in their book Film History, in 1930’s, the narrative action and character psychology are central, and continuity rules promote spatial orientation.  So the cinematic form including the sound are applied to center the linear classical narration. The other key word of the times is Hays Code, it in a way eliminates the doubt and blame that shed on the early Hollywood films for their unpredictable moral guidance, and in the other way limits the production and the methods of cinematic art practice. The scenes related to sex, violence, race issues and so on so forth are highly authorized, so filmmakers have to find other ways to express their intention or struggle for one language issue by lending the actress to other companies. In spite of all these challenges, as well as the challenge of Chinese government’s censorship, the film The Good Earth was screened in 1937, and successfully helped Luise Rainer won her second Oscar award in best leading actress.

My interest on this film separated into several parts. Firstly, it’s the adaptation of the book into the classical Hollywood narration, especially the plots scriptwriter focused on; Secondly, on cinematic language, it’s how the director manage to build the atmosphere in Chinese style by using Hollywood aesthetic method; Finally I would like to focus on the ideology part of the film including the influence from Hays Code and from Chinese Government during the Japanese Invasion War.

2.     The Good Earth as a 1930’s typical Hollywood product

Hollywood had one of its best time from late 1920’s along to late 1950’s. With the coming of sound and well-developed cinematic device, Hollywood, in other words, the Oligarchs of big five and little three, had built up a meticulous organic producing system to make films. Scrutinizing The Good Earth, we will surely observe the traits of classical Hollywood in it. As professor mentioned in class, the forerunner filmmakers of Hollywood started to polish the story in two important ways, one is to set plots in a chronological and comprehensive way for audience to catch on to them, so as to manage the continuity in narration and arouse the empathy from spectators; and the other way is to center the protagonist of story, and clarify the one-on-one relation between hero/heroin and other roles, a most persuasive example would be the biopic, films focusing on a great man and his struggled victory. In The Good Earth, these two significant traits are well demonstrated. Firstly, the plots are selectively adapted from the original novel, and are further organized into a linear, narrative and rhythmic three-act story. First division of acts is the famine, before which it sets the roles, backgrounds and challenges of the storyline. Second act starts from ‘escaping homeland’, and soon gets down to the very troughs and meets their false victory, which leads to the transformation of protagonist’s character, incarnates his desire. The final act follows with a plague of locusts, reaching the climax of hero’s inner perturbance and helping him come back to his senses, to realize the reunion of his family and friends. In a nutshell, the plots are tightly related to each other, in a fluent “cause-effect” logic, to form an allegory moral lesson. Moreover, referring to the protagonist’s setting, the storytelling is tightly surrounded with Wang Lung: the story begins with his marriage, and ends with her son’s wedding and his wife’s passing away. He triggers most of film’s plots: as the master of the family, he is the one who makes pray to gods on behalf of whole family, and he is the one decides the escaping plan, still he is the only character who experiences the devil and recovers, not to mention he is the owner of the farmed earth. Further more, the significant imagery of “earth”, actually has two layers of connotation both directly relates to protagonist, one is the land that he struggles to own and work on, the only reliance of whole family, so it underlines the bond of nature and Chinese peasants; and the other reference is the feeling and conscience of Wang Lung, which in Chinese could be absorbed into a word “Qing”(情), a complex inner drive of people, and to that extent the earth stands for his good virtue. In the same vein, the focused protagonist’s setting is well fit the Hollywood’s role setup convention. The other important trait of Hollywood in 1930’s, is the dialogue. It is more like a talking film, the lines are simple and straightforward, which is actually not the style of Chinese communication, however, the actors’ performance make up for the simpleness in dialogue.

Beside the Hollywood’s storytelling style, the style of its cinematic language speaks even louder. 1930’s witnesses the development of film’s sound, as well as that of lighting and mise-en-scène. Sound plays a crucial role in the good earth. For example, when Wang Lung and his wife were left alone for the very first time, that they were too shy to start a conversation, the background music played a role of connection, it was a cantilena, pacing up, like helping them introduce each other. As for narrative sound, the baby’s crying, the shot of gun and the Chinese traditional celebration song played by Wang’s friends are all serving as the plots trigger for whole story. The theme music is the adaptation version of song Mo Li Hua, literally translated as “Jasmine Flower”, which is an old folk song created in Qing dynasty during Qianlong era. It is known as the second national song for Chinese people, well representing the common proletarian. In terms of film’s lighting, it was not an outstanding example but indeed well organized. One of MGM’s most attractive actresses and 1936’s Oscar winner, Luise Rainer, was mostly shot in “three spot” lighting with low key. Sometimes in order to show her tender and maternity, she would be set in a scrim ( see figure 1). And for mise-en-scène, one scene to show the famine was quite interesting, the hero and his wife carrying casks through the gate, and above that, vultures are picking at a dog’s body (see figure 2-4). Apart from that, continuity editing is well applied in the film. In presenting the substantial clue of “peach tree”, filmmakers set a meaningful scene of Wang’s wife planting the tree, using POV editing and close-ups.
(see figure 5-8 ) 


All of these cinematic device indicate the film was a typical Hollywood feature. The only cinematic trait that was not typical for Hollywood style was the use of montages, for example the scene of new year’s celebration, in order to show the rapture of city’s residents, filmmaker puts a sequence of their faces, containing the jump-cut of close-ups. (see figure 9-14)

However, if to classify the film in terms of narration and cinematic language, the answer is clear that it is a typical Hollywood film, in light of the use of all the techniques above.

3.     The Good Earth as a reflection of moral and historical issues

1930s starts with the The Great Depression. It is a significant issue for all the industries in U.S., and Hollywood was not an exception, though the theatres did not go into liquidation until 1931. To Hollywood’s luck, the storm did not last too long, the industry soon found its way back. However, some audience and publish press blame the 1920’s Hollywood film in light of their presentation of luxury lifestyle and all the sex part that incarnated people’s lure and desire, for one of the reason leading to the great depression. As a result, MPAA and hays code started to restrain the film’s sex scene and imply some moral appeal for the filmmaking. Under such historical circumstances, the 1930’s films shared the same ideology, for example as professor noted in lecture, the importance of responsibility, the family’s union, the teamwork and the moral lesson on the upper class’s sumptuosity and so on so forth. Although the film was adapted from an exotic society’s literature, the film made accordance to the moral ideology above. One typical example is when the unexpected fortune changes protagonist’s value for family, he becomes greedy and turn unfaithful to his wife. Although the family has successfully made transition from peasant to landlord, his son falls in love with Wang’s second wife and happiness seems to miss out, implying that upper class lifestyle never manages to bring happiness to one’s life. And it is not until the plague of locusts (see figure 15,16), the climax of entire film, occurs did the protagonist realize the value of friendship, family and modesty. In this plot, the moral appeal of 1930’s was fully demonstrated. In my opinion, the plague could be the metaphor for the great depression, because it arrives with no sign, and it has to be put out with the new knowledge, just like Roosevelt’s new deal, and most importantly, it calls for the teamwork of villagers as well as their determination to overcome. The intention of this filmmaking is hard to trace, but one conjecture is that it in a sense could arouses the empathy of American’s shared memories of the Depression.

As for the other vital issue of the times, Hays Code, has also made the film unique. The film’s cast is quite interesting, with main roles played by western film stars and all the supporting roles played by Asians. It is said that the producer of the film tried to find Asian Hollywood stars to take main role, however the Asian stars are rare and most of them are Japanese stars, which KMT government highly opposed because China was at war with Japan, so the leading actor has got to be a western star, and as hays code writes about marriage of different races, the leading actress has to be a western star also. Still, when shooting the scene of their “first marriage night”, the night bride and groom firstly sleep together in Chinese tradition, the sex scene was replaced by a peach tree’s seed, indicating the pregnancy of Wang’s wife, Lang. (see figure 17.18)

4.     The Good Earth as the mirror of “Orient Imagination”

There are many Hollywood films with background of China, such as Piccadilly(1929), Shanghai Express(1932), The Lady from Shanghai(1947). China, especially shanghai, is the breeding ground for foreign artist’s imagination . Many Chinese critics see those films as the disparage of the nation’s image, because the films usually focus on the fatuity of this feudal society. To some extent, this criticism has its point, after all Chinese proletarian have good virtue, no less than any other western countries’ people, and the point of view these films was always set to reveal the fool of Chinese in old times’ tradition. However, I reckon that the good earth shows more than post-colonialism attempts, not from a western “tinted spectacles”, it draws a lot attention on Chinese as human, with real humanity. Of course most of the depicts are learned from Pearl’s novel, but for the first time, western filmmakers start to portrait Chinese living hood and even to set themselves in Chinese social structure to think in their way. The ways to establish the real Chinese livelihood are in a wide range, for example, the nature of village, the relation between Wang and his cow, many kinds of Chinese traditional instruments, and the way people treat each other. The last one is what really hits me with the Chinese identity: Wang always bows to their friend and keeps saying “that’s alright”, which in Chinese is a way to keep the distance to others even close friends, and that is not to say he is double in mind that he is planning something inside, but only a way to make everyone feel comfortable in their own reign.

The other issue of Chinese identity is the woman and maternity. Pearl has always been seen as the first feminist on Chinese cultural field. As in the film, Wang’s wife is the most important female icon. She was the slave in great house, and rarely she talks but usually express her feelings through facial expression. As any woman in Chinese old times, she has little voice on big issue, and has to build her respect through have a boy - yes, ironically a woman has to establish herself by not having the next generation of woman. However, Lang shows great determination on protecting her husband’s land, another big imagery in Chinese tradition. Chinese farmers live by land, in other word, rely on the earth he owns from generation to generation, so the relation between “sky” (in Chinese tradition sky stands for the mighty god because the climate determines the harvest ), “earth” and human is most significant issue in China for all the feudal centuries. In this way the Chinese woman has reveal the veil of their exotic beauty, and build another image of hardworking and industry. The film, I assume, set a new horizon in western imagination on Chinese women.

5.     Conclusion

Through the analysis on the good earth, in terms of script structure, cinematic language, and the ideology it presents, I would say the film is a typical Hollywood product in 1930s. But it is more than a typical film because in essence, it represents the commence of the change of western world’s opinion on Chinese, for the way of building the story is to experience the society from first person narratives, not in a way of western earlier point of view, the view shed from a higher angle. Through the experience of being a Chinese, the film shows great empathy on humanity in a general voice, and in a sense tells to the western world that no matter where you live, a man will have to overcome the obstacles of life, and the good virtue of hardworking and responsibility are what human should never abandon.


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