Problematic Film History: The Good Earth

Welcome to a new feature at IceCream4Freaks: Problematic Film History!  Each week, I’ll be discussing a well-regarded film of the past and the elements of that film which have aged the worst.  This week: The Good Earth

The actual content of Sidney Franklin’s The Good Earth is not terribly problematic at all. The film centers around a family of Chinese famers trying to make it through famine and political unrest in pre-World War I China. The fact that it was made during the Hays Code in 1937 Hollywood is where the problems arise.

The film is based on the 1931 novel by Pearl Buck. Along with producer Irving Thalberg, Buck envisioned the film adaptation with only Chinese actors. Unfortunately, the ugly head of Hollywood racism denied that vision. Chinese actress Anna May Wong tested for the role, but was never truly considered due to the gray areas of the Hays Code’s anti-miscegenation laws. Instead, the lead roles of Wang and O-Lan were given to white actors Paul Muni and Louise Rainer.

As for the plot, Wang is a lowly farmer who marries the quiet and obedient O-Lan. Initially, their hard work and good fortune give them three children and a bountiful harvest. Eventually, a famine forces the family south to the city where they are reduced to begging and stealing in order to survive. When the family’s fortunes finally turn, Wang’s wandering eyes catch those of Lotus (white woman Tilly Losch), a dancer at a tea room. Eventually, Wang turns his attentions towards Lotus and begins to find faults in the ever dutiful O-Lan.

Before we get to the obvious problems, let’s talk about Wang and O-Lan’s relationship as presented in the film. The character of O-Lan has no personal agency. She is completely subservient to her husband and will work to the point of near death. In particular, there is a scene where O-Lan is desperately attempting to gather wheat before a storm hits. She works so hard she collapses in exhaustion and gives birth in the subsequent scene. She is considered the hardest of workers and the best of wives for her lack of complaining.

At no point does O-Lan have an opinion of her own, have the opportunity to speak up or have her own time to relax. Her life is nothing but hardship and pain. At the conclusion of the film, when she is dying of loneliness and exhaustion, Wang finally realizes how great he had it. She dies with him by her side, given a useless gesture of pearls which was rightfully hers in the first place. The film assumes the greater the suffering, the greater the woman. Wang learns nothing from this as his fortunes are as great as they ever were while O-Lan was alive. He is never punished and is as prosperous as ever at the film’s conclusion.

On to the appropriation. The studio’s excuse of not casting Wong in the O-Lan role is an empty excuse. If you can’t show mixing of races (which itself is an asinine requirement), then cast a Chinese actor. Much like the problem of Flora Robson in Saratoga Trunk, the makeup attempts to make white faces look Chinese is especially noticeable when next to authentically Chinese actors. None of the primary roles are authentically Chinese, but there are dozens of speaking parts and actual Chinese faces next to the faces of Rainer (who looks like a white woman) and Muni (who looks like a terrible Halloween costume) are that much more noticeable.

The Hays Code was an abomination of “tolerance” in a time that was anything but. Without the racist and misogynist censors, this could have been a monumental film with deep implications of inclusion decades before it became the norm. It took until 1961 with Flower Drum Song where a film told an Asian-centric story with an authentically Asian cast. It could have been 24 years earlier.

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