Oscar: Best Actress–Rainer, Luise in The Good Earth (1937)

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Based on Pearl Buck’s 1931 novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize, “The Good Earth” starred Paul Muni and Luise Rainer as the Chinese farmers. The book is the first in a Buck trilogy that includes Sons (1932) and A House Divided (1935).

Like other book to screen adaptations, “The Good Earth” was marked by literary values and efforts at high production values, even if the movie was confined to the possibilities of the back lot. 

 
The budget of this picture was immense by the standards of the time, amounting to $3 million (equivalent of 40-50 million today), and the film was in production for three years, due to producer Thalberg’s sudden death and changes in its directors: George Hill began and Sidney Franklin finished the shoot. 
 
The picture won a second (undeserved) Best Actress Oscar for Luise Rainer as O-Lan, the first wife a former slave in the house of Hwang. A quite, thoughtful woman, she is hardworking and the symbol of a self-sacrificing mother.
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A second Oscar honored the cinematography, possible an acknowledgment of the locust attack sequence, which created an impressive special effect.
 
Released during the end of the Depression era, this earnest feature emphasized the importance of traditional values and the significance of the land, values that are also at the fore of the uniquely American locale of “Gone With the Wind,” in 1939.
 
Beginning on Wang Lung’s wedding day, the yarn follows the ups and downs in his future life. The House of Hwang, a family of rich landowners, lives in the nearby town. As the House declines due to opium use, money spending and borrowing, Wang Lung, through his hard work and strong determination and the help of his loyal wife O-Lan, is able to buy land from the Hwangs.
O-lan gives birth to two sons and a girl, who becomes mentally handicapped as a result famine. When a devastating drought arrives, to make ends meet, the family flees to the Southern City. Wang Lung’s uncle offers Wang Lung money for his possessions, including his cherished land. They consent to sell all of their possessions but the land, which holds scared value for them.
While in the city, O-Lan and the children turn to begging while Wang Lung pulls a rickshaw.  Needless to say, they feel alienated and out of place among their more metropolitan countrymen who look, speak, and behave in a different way. They no longer starve due to the charitable meals of rice gruel but still live in abject poverty. All along, Wang Lung longs to return to his land. When armies approach the city, Wang works at night out of fear of being conscripted. During a food riot, a mob breaks into the house of a rich man who offers Wang Lung gold in exchange for his life.
 
Eventually, the patriarch and his clan are able to return home, and Wang Lung buys an ox, tools, and hires servants to help him work the land. Using jewels O-Lan looted from the city, they buy the House of Hwang’s remaining land and is able to send his sons to school and apprentice one as a merchant. As Wang Lung becomes more prosperous, he buys a concubine named Lotus. O-Lan dies shortly after first son’s wedding. Wang Lung and his family move into town and buy the old House of Hwang. Now an old man, he wants peace, but there are always disputes between his sons, and the third one runs away. An intergenerational conflict ensues, when Wang Lung overhears his sons’ plan to sell the land that he had worked so hard to keep.
The tale of family life in a Chinese village became a bestseller upon publication and has been a favorite since; Oprah Winfrey revitalized interest in the work in 2004, when she chose it for her Book Club. The novel and film, which depict Chinese village culture in detail, is said to raise the awareness of the average American about Chinese culture and people, which will become more acute during WWII.
Luise Rainer’s Consecutive Oscars
Luise Rainer became the first Hollywood actress to win two consecutive Oscars in a row; the first was for The Great Zigfeld.  The other nominees in 1937 were: Irene Dunne in the screwball comedy “The Awful Truth,” Garbo in “Camille,” janet gaynor in “A Star Is Born,” and Barbara Stanwyck in “Stella Dallas.”
Oscar Nominations: 5
 
Best Picture, produced by Irving Thalberg and Albert Lewin
Director: Sidney Franklin
Actress: Luise Rainer
Cinematography: Karl Freund
Film Editing: Basil Wrangell
 
Oscar Awards: 3
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Actress
Cinematography
Screenplay
 
Oscar Context
 
In 1937, nine other movies competed with “The Good Earth” for Best Picture, including Warner’s biopic “The Life of Emile Zola,” with 10 nominations, winning 3 Best Picture and other kudos, Leo McCarey’s marital comedy “The Awful Truth” with six nominations, and Gregory La Cava’s backstage drama, “Stage Door,” with four. The other nominees were: William Wyler’s social drama set in a New York City slum, “Dead End,” Frank Capra’s utopian comedy “Lost Horizon,” and Henry King’s adventure “In Old Chicago,” The first version of “A Star Is Born,” “In Old Chicago,” and the Deana Durbin vehicle, “One Hundred Men and a Girl.”
 
Next to “Life of Emile Zola,” the most-nominated films were Fox’s adventure “In Old Chicago” and “A Star Is Born.” Only one of the ten nominated pictures was a comedy, Leo McCarey’s sublime screwball, “The Awful Truth,” co-starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne at their very best. The Oscars were spread among eight films; the only two pictures that didn’t win any award were “Dead End” and “Stage Door.”
 
The Best Director Oscar went to Leo McCarey for the screwball comedy “The Awful Truth,” and the Best Editing to Gene Havlick and Gene Milford for Capra’s “Lost Horizon.”