An army of people worked for nearly four years and a Californian hillside was transformed into North China in one of the greatest film production feats ever accomplished.
Somewhat in the legendary manner of Mahomet, who went to the mountain when the mountain would not come to him, Hollywood has struck a compromise with the ageless magnificence of China.
They wanted a picture of China, so they went to China to get it. But China, at least partially, came to the studios, in turn.
To film a picture that would bring to the screen the very character of the Orient, an expedition was sent into the country of the Great Wall, equipped with cameras and sound recoding apparatus, to record the visual and audible qualities of the land and its people.
It required three and a half years to make the picture, with the combined efforts of genius and labour, which have been classified as more or less synonymous.
The result is The Good Earth.
Pearl Buck, the author, has described her method of writing when she fashioned the story in Nanking, where she was an obscure teacher in the University. She said that she found it necessary to think in Chinese, translating into English as she wrote. The making of the picture is comparable to her technique, for the producers, too, have fortified the film with actual Chinese atmosphere and impassive Oriental players.
In order to produce The Good Earth with absolute authenticity, M.-G.-M. obtained from the Chinese Government the services of General Theodore Tu, who served in Hollywood as technical adviser.
With Director Franklin, Paul Muni and others, General Tu assisted in the selection and testing of more than 300 Chinese who appear in the film.
He was present, too, when workmen with steam shovels and pneumatic hammers, carved from a range of hills a replica of the Great Wall of China and established on a 500-acre location site a whole Chinese panorama.
It was there that China literally rose out of Hollywood. The film expedition that spent a year in the Orient shipped back a cargo of props. Whole buildings were purchased, knocked down and reassembled on the Hollywood location grounds.
Chinese farm implements, household utensils, and works of art, were part of the cargo, along with a group of the patient water buffalo that are the Oriental beasts of burden.
When they were considering the problem of constructing the Great Wall as it rises form the mountains of Mongolia, Harry Oliver, art director, observed that a range of California hills closely resembled the rough outline of the ancient wall.
From an engineering standpoint, it was considered more practical to sculpture the wall from the hills than to transport material. Moreover, the soil and stones that were removed for the wall were used for other constructions, part of which was a walled city.
On this 500-acre tract, farms were laid out in the Chinese pattern, with contours for the individual crops of wheat, rice, leeks, onions, Chinese cabbage, mustard greens, gourds and similar native plantings. The hillsides were terraced and planted months in advance, then cultivated by Yee On, a Santa Barbara farmer, who has accumulated a fortune by growing Chinese vegetables for the local market.
Farm villages were constructed and the props from China were reassembled.
A stream was cut through the centre of the location and lined with stones, after the Chinese custom.
Waterwheels operated by buffalo, provided the irrigation system.
Then, for necessary interior scenes at the location, a stage was built and with it, a camp for the extra players, which included a commissary and even Chinese supply store.
There, beneath the California sun and at the M.-G.-M. studios in Culver City, the massive picture was produced.
There, for many months; Luise Rainer and Paul Muni, and their colleagues in the cast, virtually loved the story of Wang, the hardworking, ambitious farmer and his slave wife, O-Lan.
Speaking of her role when it was finished, Luise Rainer expressed her remarkable understanding of the character, O-Lan.
“This woman,” she said, “could not speak or understand more than a few hundred words. She was slow, stoical, never showing emotion, almost the same as the water buffalo she fed in the stable.
“Still, within her, were all the emotions that every woman has. I have tried to let the audience know of these emotions, although I could not let O-Lan show them.
“In other words, I tried to reveal what was in this woman’s heart without using any of the expressions, or inflections that we generally use in acting. I thought of her as she was, and it showed in the eyes.”
It is an interesting aside, now that the book and the picture have attained such world-wide fame, to recall that, but for illness of a little baby, The Good Earth might never have been written.
Pearl Buck was teaching in the University of Nanking, China, when Carol, her two-year-old daughter, became seriously ill.
The mother wrote a few articles for travel magazines in her frantic effort to raise money for the baby’s care.
The doctors finally told her it would be necessary to send the child to America, to an institution properly equipped to treat her.
“I must try to write a book,” Pearl Buck told a friend.
So it was that The Good Earth was written in desperation. Its proceeds since have endowed the institution where Carol Buck is recovering.
It is conceded in Hollywood that the picture was one of the most elaborate productions ever made. A small army of people worked incessantly through a period of nearly four years.
The novel, when it ws bought for the screen by Irving Thalberg, instantly demanded a tremendous outlay of energy and thought. Research workers delved in Chinese lore and the advance preparations progressed in every department at the M.-G.-M. studios.
Certainly, the picture was a great adventure in the field of production. Now it comes to the world as the latest evidence of the new and more far-reaching artistry of the screen.