by Sidney A. Franklin
The director of The Good Earth tells you of some of the problems that had to be tackled in making the picture.
Upsetting the basic principles of any task causes that task to take on gigantic proportions. The difficulties appear to be insurmountable, because one is faced with the problem of abandoning everything previously learned about that particular piece of work, with discarding methods tested by time, and trying to work out new and untried methods and a new and untried point of view.
This was the prospect that staggered me when I was asked to take over direction on The Good Earth. As a picture, this type of story requires much research at least to get acquainted in a small way with the subject, which in this case is a most difficult one.
And so I had to leap mentally to the mud hut, in the innermost remote corner of China, of Wang Lung the farmer, and to the midst of a people who live from hand to mouth; a people with only two fields on which their very existence depends, and only if, from their point of view, the gods are good to them and preserve their crops that they may survive. Theirs is a land where the ox, better known as the water buffalo, is the same as the West’s plough horse.
The studio enlisted the best minds, acquainted with that part of China, and heading this list was the very capable General Theodore Tu, representative of the Chinese government, and specially sent us by his country to help us in every possible way.
As I noted, I was in the frame of mind of one approaching an impossible task when I first came into the picture. Then I came to know the Chinese people myself.
And then, to my intense relief, I found that basically their emotions, their loves, joys, sorrows, are no different from those of anyone else in this world.
They are the same human souls, but in them, hidden form the unobservant eye by the veneer of tradition, is the stoicism born of years of primitive living, the complicated customs of past tens of centuries.
Under this is a sentimentality, a poetic vein of thought, and steadfastness of ideals, that have lived through the ages in the oldest civilisation in the world.
Paul Muni, who plays Wang Lung in the story, took a trip with General Theodore Tu up and down the Pacific Coast, during which time he lived with the Chinese and studied them.
Luise Rainer, one of the most human actresses I have ever seen, was unerringly right in her conception of a Chinese woman’s psychology, and the emotions accompanying it, when she went into the role of O-lan, the wife.
There were still many problems in the picture. We had not solved them all. But we were no longer afraid of the human element in it.
Details were still complicated, and sometimes we had to got to some lengths to get around them.
Little things cropped up in every scene.
For instance, there was a line, spoken by the old Father, played by Charley Grapewin, when he learns that a Chinese “blessed event” is due in the family. “She is with child – soon I shall be a grandfather.”
It aroused immediate protest from our Chinese technical adviser. No father-in-law, in China, would ever make a personal remark about his daughter-in-law, particularly one dealing with anything applying to sex.
He could not say that she was with child. But it was all right for him to say, “Soon I shall be a grandfather,” for then he was talking about himself.
In another scene Walter Connolly, as the uncle, entered and bowed as he wished Muni, the nephew, a prosperous New Year. We had to rearrange the scene. The older man never bows to the younger, the younger man does the bowing.
Complicated indeed was the Chinese reasoning by which it was suggested that Ching, the friend,be called “Uncle” by the children.
Ching is Muni’s friend. When they become firm friends, in China they become as brothers. Therefore, the children consider the father’s friend as an uncle.
This accounts for the multiplicity of “cousins” in China, and for the formation of the huge clans, or tongs.
In this particular case we didn’t want to use the word “uncle” because it might confuse the audience as regards the blood uncle or younger son of Wang.
The technical experts compromised. The children could call him “Mr. Ching.” It was absolutely necessary that some honorary form of address be used by children addressing their elders. The rule of filial piety, worship of ancestors, and respect for elders is an adamantine law of the Chinese.
I am wondering if the rapid strides in progress to-day will ever wipe out this quality, which. when understood, is one of the most inspiring things about the civilisation of these people.
We had many technical difficulties, and many physical difficulties, what with locations, fields, weather, but these we have in other pictures. Our main problem was to “get through” the intensely human reactions of these people, in the midst of authentic depiction of their traditions, customs, and age-instilled repressions.
I hope we succeeded.
I don’t believe I have ever worked on a picture that was more difficult, due to the detail that had to be checked and re-checked continually, but, on the other hand, I don’t believe I have ever found a picture more fascinating.
I hope the public will agree with me.