The Good Earth has its good moments and it really is easy to watch. Technically, it’s pretty impressive for that era and, even though it’s much dated, the film is a nice sit through if you’re in the mood for 1930s epics.
Luise plays O-Lan, a poor, humble Chinese slave offered as wife to a poor, not-so-smart but well intended and loving farmer. Together they build a family and work the land and prosper, but destiny gives them a lot of bumps: famine, danger, greed, betrayal. As the family goes together through a lot, we always know that O-Lan is the wise one, she has the balls to make the tough decisions, act courageously and save the day. She is always the moral compass of the film and the unselfish mother hen.
You can roll your eyes when you see such a character. To Luise’s credit, she plays it just as unselfishly as O-Lan is and makes it believable. There’s nothing strange in seeing her working on the field or washing the clothes with a stick or looking drugged when confronted with hunger. Luise IS in character and sometimes actually takes it a step too far.
I didn’t know how to call that. Luise is like an overacting silent film star. Her face does most of the acting here, because O-Lan is too uneducated and humble to speak too much for herself. But one might say some facial expressions are taken too far and it becomes exaggerated when she’s expressing everything too literally. Her acting is theatrical, but to me it worked for the most parts. The role is of such a manner and let’s not forget this is a simple, kind woman, so her reactions are obvious and never fake.
However, this doesn’t mean there’s no depth to the character. I was surprised when we got the idea that she killed her newborn just because she knew it would benefit the family. It’s a key moment and another proof that she’s the one who knows best. And Luise plays it so well that I didn’t judge her, not even for a second.
There are 2 scenes standing out for her from my point of view. The first one is obvious: the stealing of the diamonds and getting caught. Here is where I think her overacting works, because it’s such a tense moment in the film, as she might get killed, and the fear on her face fits perfectly with the scene. The other one is much lighter: in a moment of childish day dreaming, she dreams out loud about wearing something new to impress the people from the house she was a slave in. Her innocence is charming and shows a different side of the character.
Luise Rainer’s performance is not on everyone’s taste. I myself call it overacting, but at the same I go back to the character and find reasons in the story. What’s obvious is that her performance is the best of the film and her character a bit more layered that we might’ve thought. She shows range and makes O-Lan accessible and likeable. It’s not a performance I love, as I can see the flaws, but it IS what the character demanded, with no vanity, and in the overacting touch of the 1930s. I go with .