(director: Sidney Franklin; screenwriters: novel by Pearl Buck/based the stage adaptation by Owen Davis and Donald Davis/Talbot Jennings/Tess Slesinger/Claudine West; cinematographer: Karl Freund; editor: Basil Wrangell; music: Herbert Stothart; cast: Paul Muni (Wang), Luise Rainer (O-Lan), Walter Connolly (Uncle), Tilly Losch (Lotus), Charley Grapewin (Old Father), Jessie Ralph (Cuckoo), Soo Yong (Aunt), Keye Luke (Elder Son), Roland Lui (Younger Son); Runtime: 139; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Irving Thalberg/Albert Lewin; MGM; 1937)

It gets by with great star performances, but the story remains undramatic.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s adapted from the 1931 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Pearl Buck. The big-budget film was for a hefty $3 million, quite a sum for back in the day. It took four years to tack together before released, as revisions were ongoing. Sidney Franklin(“The Dark Angel”/”Smilin’ Through”/”The Barretts of Wimpole Street“) directs it as an drawn-out epic, and bases it on Donald Davis and Owen Davis’ stage-adaptation of the sprawling novel. Writers Talbot Jennings, Tess Slesinger and Claudine West try to bring it to life telling the story of a Chinese farming couple whose lives are deeply affected by poverty, greed, and nature.

We follow the peasant marriage in China of kitchen slave O-Lan (Luise Rainier) and the farmer Wang (Paul Muni). The hard-working couple raise three children, and struggle bringing in the harvests and fighting through droughts. Wang wisely buys more land for cheap and eventually becomes rich. Not satisfied, Wang deserts the farm and takes a much younger second wife.

Walter Connolly offers comic relief as the greedy uncle. Tilly Losch, a dancer, plays a straight role as Muni’s second wife. Charley Grapewin robustly plays the elderly father of Wang.

The well-meaning film on peasant life in China, despite casting both occidental and Chinese actors, never seemed anything but artificial and plodding. It gets by with great star performances, but the story remains undramatic. It works for Hollywood as a prestige film, as it tries its hand at history. But if you are not predisposed to see a film about Chinese farmers, I wouldn’t go out of my way to see this one.

The pic won Academy Awards for Luise Rainier as Best Actress and Karl Freund for Best Cinematography.