The Good Earth follows Chinese farmer Wang Lung (Paul Muni) and his wife O-Lan (Luise Rainer) as their lives go through a series of highs and lows. Wang Lung comes from a family of farmers and the movie opens on the day he marries O-Lan, a kitchen slave in the Great House. O-Lan had been sold into slavery by her parents during a famine and she truly hated working there. She is determined to overcome her past and dedicates herself to being the best wife she can be. She cooks, she goes out and works in the fields, and she gives birth to three children. Everything is going well for the family and Wang Lung is even able to buy up more farmland, but then they are hit by a drought. Facing starvation, Wang Lung decides to sell off some of his land, but when O-Lan finds out how little money they would get for the land, she won’t let him sell. Instead, she suggests the family head south to the Great City and try to find work there.
When the family arrives in the Great City, things aren’t much better for them there and they have to beg and steal to get by. Things look up momentarily when Wang Lung finds out that the drought has ended back home, but then he realizes that he doesn’t have any money for seed or an Ox to get his farm back on track. But when O-Lan joins a mob of people looting the Great House, she manages to grab some jewels and the family uses them to get the money to go back north. When the family gets home, they re-build their farm and come back stronger than ever. Not only are they so prosperous that they can afford to send their oldest son to college, they’re able to buy the Great House where O-Lan spent so may years slaving away.
Even though the family is doing well financially, things are strained between Wang Lung and O-Lan. Wang Lung has grown bored with O-Lan and his eyes have wandered over to Lotus, a younger, prettier woman than O-Lan. Lotus becomes Wang Lung’s second wife, but when Lotus gets bored and seduces Wang Lung’s youngest son, Wang throws his son out of the house. Before he can leave, a swarm of locusts threatens to destroy all the crops. The whole family bands together to ward off the locusts and succeeds, which brings Wang Lung to re-examine his priorities and remember what is really important to him.
The Good Earth was a movie that I’d heard lots of good things about, but it was never one I was just dying to see. I knew it was going to be pretty depressing and it generally didn’t seem like the type of movie I usually go for. But after watching the interview with Luise Rainer that TCM played on her 101st birthday, most of which dealt with making The Good Earth, I was intrigued so I decided to stay tuned and watch it. I liked it much more than I expected to. I thought it was shot magnificently and Luise Rainer was brilliant in it. Another reason I was kind of reluctant to watch it is that I knew it featured white actors playing Chinese characters. Even though I understand that it was a totally acceptable practice back then, few things make me shake my head more than blackface, yellowface, or any other kind of “face.” But every once in a while, someone manages to give such a strong performance that I can safely say that even though I loathe the practice, I love the performance. Luise Rainer as O-Lan is a perfect example of that. She played that part with so much delicacy and without resorting to stereotypes that I just can’t say anything bad about her performance. O-Lan was such a fascinating character and Luise played her so beautifully, she made the whole movie worth watching just for her part alone.