Wednesday, September 16, 2009


This is a classic movie I've avoided seeing for years for two reasons: 1) its reputation as a glossy piece of big-studio "yellowface" (a movie about Asians cast with mostly Caucasian actors); 2) it stars Paul Muni, an actor considered one of the greats whom I've never liked. Though the movie's not terrible, I should have followed my instincts. Muni is the farmer Wang who marries the passive house slave O-Lan (Luise Rainer). Much-needed rains arrive on their wedding night, which is seen as a good omen. O-Lan gives birth to their first child during a storm (a well-done sequence), and soon they have three children, five fields, and are considered prosperous until a terrible famine hits. Rather than sell their lands, they head to the city where they live by begging until, during the turmoil of a revolution, O-Lan winds up with a bag of jewels. The family return home rich, Wang takes a second wife (his uncle says, "Why not? You have two oxen!"), who becomes a bad influence, even having an affair with Wang's second son. The climax occurs during a huge locust attack, which Wang manages to defeat with the help of his college-educated eldest son (Keye Luke). Production-wise, the film is top-notch, but I find Muni and Rainer to be weak, with Muni overplaying and Rainer underplaying, though her character is the backbone of the story. Charley Grapewin channels Walter Brennan as Wang's father, and Walter Connelley is a shade too much to take as an obnoxious uncle. Luke, one of the few Asian actors in a major role, is fine, as is Tilly Losch as the naughty second wife. [TCM]

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