- This film is dedicated to Irving Thalberg – “His last great achievement.”
- Directed by Sidney Franklin (and also in part by Victor Fleming, Sam Wood, & Gustav Machatý – though none of them are formally credited).
- Let’s get the obvious out of the way first – it is not comfortable at all & at times quite torturous to watch Paul Muni play a Chinese man. It is even more distracting & obnoxious to watch Charley Grapewin play Muni’s father, and Walter Connolly (?!) play his uncle.
Even bigger sigh.
Now…the movie –
- It’s Wang Lung (Paul Muni)’s Wedding Day! He’s marrying O-Lan (Luise Rainer), an orphaned servant girl.
- Soon, O-Lan is pregnant. Wang & his dad are pumped! More farm help is on its way!
- One day, a thunderstorm suddenly rolls in, threatening the family’s wheat crop. O-Lan helps as much as she can to save the crop – but she’s like…9 months pregnant, and soon she collapses. Wang carries her back home & tells her he’ll run & get a woman to come help. O-Lan, like a badass, just says, “Go back to the wheat,” and proceeds to birth the child entirely on her own.
- “It’s a man child! It’s a man child!” ( – Real quote.)
- Fast forward a few years – they now have 5 fields & 3 kids (the youngest is “just a female” but, you know, she still kinda counts as a real person).
- Famine strikes, though. The wheat is not growing this year & no one has any food.
- Walter Connolly, Wang’s good-for-nothing, lazy uncle, tells Wang to sell his land to get money for food. Wang refuses, saying the land is all he has & he must keep it for his sons.
- Uncle Good For Nothing tells all the townsmen ‘Wang’s definitely got food. We’re starving & he’s got ALL THE FOOD.’
So the townsmen storm into Wang’s house & are like, ‘You have food!!! You have food!!! You have –- oh, shit. You’re eating dirt. Nevermind. Sorry bro, we’ll leave now.’
- Meanwhile, O-Lan has another child, but it dies immediately, because, well, she barely ate for her entire pregnancy.
- O-Lan heroically stops Wang from selling his land, & the family instead heads south in search of food, intending to return to their land when the worst of the famine is over.
- Their destitution gets so bad that O-Lan suggests selling their daughter into slavery. Wang shoots this idea down, saying he’ll die first.
Woo! Major dad points.
- Shortly thereafter, they hear some miserable wailing coming from a nearby tent. The wailing woman tells Wang that her husband died while pulling timber. Wang’s like, “Hot dog! A job opening!” (He doesn’t really say that, but he does go fill the job.)
- Next, a revolution happens. China becomes a republic – but also total mayhem breaks out. O-Lan gets trampled by a rioting crowd.
- O-Lan gets way lucky in that she awakens from her TrampleSlumber to see a discarded pouch within her reach…and it’s got jewels inside!!! She narrowly escapes being shot alongside a bunch of other looters…and eventually makes her way back home.
With the bag o’ jewels paying their way, the family is able to head back north to their land! Hooray!
- “And Wang Lung rebuilt his house and enriched his fields…and the years were good to him.”
(Says the title card.)
- Uncle Good For Nothing is (predictably) a terrible influence on Wang.
Together, they go see some exotic Chinese dancers in a ritzy restaurant. After one woman dances, Wang says, displaying all of his intelligence ever so brilliantly:
“She’s like a dream person!”
(Really? That’s all you could think of to say?)
- One day, Wang comes home & is like, ‘Excellent news! I’ve bought the Great House! I’m a lord now!’
- O-Lan is not thrilled by this – she doesn’t want to own slaves, considering she once was one, and also does not want to leave their house, where all her children were born.
- Next, Wang’s like, ‘Uh – remember those two favorite pearls of yours that came in our lucky jewel bag? I need them ’cause I’ve got myself another woman. She’s not as good as you – but still, she’s a woman, so I can’t quit her.’
Like the selfless woman O-Lan is, she gives him not only her favorite pearls, but also permission to move his 2nd woman into his house.
(I’m totally against this turn of events, by the way. Wang Lung has turned out to be an ungrateful piece of shit.)
- Papa Wang (Grapewin) is similarly unenthusiastic about this turn of events. “There’s a bad woman in the house!” he repeatedly exclaims, before spitting on the floor in disgust.
- Unfortunately for Wang, his second wife takes a liking to one of his sons. Everyone knows it, too! How embarrassing!
The son (Roland Lui) is disowned accordingly.
(Wang Lung’s such an asswipe now! I’m bummed, much like many of his family members.)
- Luise Rainer is excellent in this. Her performance is so measured, so quiet – she certainly deserved the Best Actress Oscar she was awarded for this.
- *Gasp!* It’s the 17-year locusts!
( – GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT HERE (1942))
- Okay, but seriously – there really are locusts, & they totally wipe out Greedy Lord Asswipe’s crops – save for one field, which is saved by Agricultural Degree Son (the oldest, played by Keye Luke – the youngest is the one mixed up with the Bad Woman)’s last-minute Fire Wall Plan (as well as an excellently timed change in the wind).
- Bleggghhh. There are some truly claustrophobic & nasty close-up shots of the clustering locusts.
- Seriously, y’all……these locusts.
Vomit on a stick.
- Lord Asswipe partially redeems himself by working alongside his sons & best friend Ching (Ching Wah Lee) to save the crops…later selling the Great House & re-gifting O-Lan’s favorite pearls to her on her deathbed.
- It should be noted that Irving Thalberg originally wanted an all-Chinese cast, but there allegedly weren’t enough high-caliber Chinese (or Chinese-American) actors to fill all the necessary parts. Really, I’m sure we can all agree it was not the lack of talented Chinese actors, but rather MGM’s doubt in their profitability at the box office. Remember – this is 1937 we’re talking about. Groan.
- Anna May Wong very much wanted to play the part of O-Lan & tested for it – but Paul Muni was cast, & thus they thought it pertinent to cast a non-Chinese woman opposite him. Sad – as I’m sure this would have been a fantastic showcase of Anna May Wong’s talents – as it instead proved to be for Luise Rainer’s.
- This movie also won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography – and I’d like to mention that this is also well-deserved.
- IMDb mentions that this one of Ernest Borgnine’s 5 favorite films.