On Casting ‘The Good Earth’

chingopenerLast month, Ridley Scott and the studio responsible for Exodus faced criticism for not casting ethnic actors in the two main roles, which were played by Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton. Some rightly decried the lack of opportunities for non-white actors in Hollywood, citing Exodus as an example. Others criticized the casting because it was not “realistic” or “accurate,” though I always cringe at viewers/reviewers who use realism as a criteria for judging art, even popular art. Scott addressed the criticism by noting that the film would not have been made without the presence of stars in the key roles and that several secondary roles were indeed filled by ethnic actors and actresses.

While it is easy to assume that these types of casting arguments are born out of modern-day political correctness, I was a bit surprised to read about similar issues plaguing the production of The Good Earth. TCM is airing The Good Earth next Monday, January 12 at noon, as part of its tribute to Luise Rainer, who died on December 30.

THE SETS WERE DRESSED WITH MANY OF THE OBJECTS PURCHASED IN CHINA.

THE SETS WERE DRESSED WITH  OBJECTS PURCHASED IN CHINA.

The Good Earth was released in 1937, though MGM had secured the rights to the highly popular novel five years earlier. Pearl S. Buck’s novel told the heart-rending story of Wang Lung and his wife, an ex-slave named O-Lan, as they struggled through the ups and downs of life in China. At the end of 1932, several studio personnel went to China to shoot footage and to test Chinese actors for key roles. According to the trades at the time, producer Irving Thalberg intended to use all Asian actors and to shoot the film on location for authenticity. Some online sources state that it was author Buck who wanted to use Chinese actors. These same online sources claim that Thalberg did not want to cast all Asian actors and when confronted with the idea, he said, “I’m in the business of creating illusions.” However, I could find neither the context nor the origins of this quote, which makes me suspicious if he said it under these circumstances. Also, as the author of the original novel, Buck’s opinions about the casting would carry no weight.

DIRECTOR SIDNEY FRANKLIN LOOKS OVER THE FILM'S EXTERIOR SETS IN CHATHAM.

DIRECTOR SIDNEY FRANKLIN LOOKS OVER THE FILM’S EXTERIOR SETS IN CHATSWORTH.

By 1933, the idea of filming entirely in China had been discarded. In early 1934, Hollywood Reporter revealed that the Chinese government requested all studio personnel to leave the country because officials disapproved of the original novel. Apparently, certain passages were “prejudicial to the dignity of the Chinese race.” To remain in China, Thalberg and his staff agreed to leave out certain scenes in the book and to hire a Chinese adviser named General Ting-Hsiu Tu. I doubt if this was much of a concession for MGM, because the offensive passages involved sexual relations, a character who was a prostitute, and a 12-year-old concubine—situations that would not have been permitted under the Production Code. To maintain “realism” in the film, a crew shot footage Chinese landscapes to use for “authentic backgrounds,” and thousands of items—from small objects to village huts—were shipped from China to Hollywood to dress the sets.

PAUL MUNI AND LUISE RAINER AS WANG LUNG AND O-LAN

PAUL MUNI AND LUISE RAINER AS WANG LUNG AND O-LAN

With the main production officially moved to Hollywood, more issues arose with casting. In 1935, Hollywood Reporter stated that plans for an all-Chinese cast had been abandoned by Thalberg because there were “not enough suitable Chinese actors” in America. The key word here is “suitable.” That year, Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s only female Asian movie star, was considered for the role of Lotus, a beautiful entertainer who lures Wang Lung away from his family life with O-Lan. However, if Wong was hired, then an Asian actor would have to be cast as Wang Lung, because the Production Code did not allow anything that was close to miscegenation, or “race-mixing.” Casting Wong meant that the main male character could not be played by a bona fide movie star, because there were no Asian leading men in Hollywood. As Ridley Scott’s comment on the casting of Exodus makes clear, there is no box office appeal for a Hollywood movie without stars.

Among the non-Asian actors tested for the main roles were Barbara Stanwyck, stage actress Katherine Cornell, and Nils Asther. Eventually, Luise Rainer and Paul Muni were cast as O-Lan and Wang Lung and an unknown, Tilly Losch, as Lotus. Screen tests continued to be made on Asian actors for secondary and small roles. Though some of them tested for the main roles, I doubt if they were seriously considered for Wang, O-Lan, or Lotus. I am sure they read for the main roles merely as the basis for their screen test.

CHINGWAH LEE

CHINGWAH LEE

Among the most interesting Asian actors cast in The Good Earth was a Chinese American named Chingwah Lee, a prominent member of San Francisco’s Chinatown community. According to “San Francisco Chinatown’s Renaissance Man,” an article written for the Chinese Historical Society in 2011, Chingwah Lee was hired by Irving Thalberg in 1935 to recruit Chinese actors for the film. Born into a prominent Chinese family in San Francisco, Lee worked tirelessly to improve the image of the Chinese American community. In his time, the public image of Chinatown and its residents was very negative. Chinatown was painted as sordid albeit exotic area where Chinese heathens partook of gambling, prostitution, opium, and other unsavory activities. Lee spent his entire life founding organizations, speaking at conferences, promoting Chinese art and culture, and serving as a bridge between Chinese and whites in San Francisco. He cofounded the Chinese Digest, the first English-language magazine for Chinese Americans, as well as the Chinese Historical Society of America.

chingmango

MANGO EYES MY COLLECTION OF CHINGWAH LEE PROMO PHOTOS.

I became aware of Lee when I found a set of miniature promotional postcards of his Hollywood movies, including his character Ching from The Good Earth. Though hired to help Thalberg find Asian actors, Lee landed the role of Ching when Paul Muni suggested he audition. The promo cards were “signed” by Lee in that his autograph was mechanically printed on the photos —much like publicity photos of major stars of the day. Knowing the dearth of Asian movie stars during the Golden Age, I was surprised that this level of publicity had been used for a Chinese actor. When I researched Chingwah Lee, it was apparent that he was not a movie star but a cultural star—a luminary who likely attracted Chinese viewers to The Good Earth.

Lee reported on the production of The Good Earth for the Chinese Digest in 1936 to 1937. Though today’s audiences might criticize Hollywood for casting whites in key roles, Lee supported the film in his writings because he thought the film promoted a positive depiction of the Chinese. Considering the negative stereotypes he had fought during his lifetime, a film about a hard-working Chinese couple who survive misfortune was considered a positive depiction. (This is not the way the couple is portrayed in Buck’s novel.) He was impressed with the make-up department’s efforts to make Muni and Rainer look authentic rather than exaggerated stereotypes with big teeth and half-closed eyes. According to Lee, he overheard technical adviser Tu ask Rainer what part of China she was from.

ching2Lee’s articles for the Chinese Digest offer insight into the scale of production and depth of detail that MGM lavished onto their version of The Good Earth. In an article dated June 19, 1936, he lauded Thalberg and his assistant, Albert Lewin, for “accuracy of detail.” Three huge outdoor sets were constructed for the film, including a Chinese village near Chatsworth, California, 35 miles from the MGM lot. The huts were not false fronts but actual structures made of sun-dried bricks, logs, and bamboo. Fields were plowed and actual crops were planted, with the corn, radishes, beets, spinach, lettuce, cabbage, and celery used for food by the cast and crew. The grain and rice were not used for practical purposes because it was changed as needed by the prop men. Once, director Sidney Franklin noticed the grain had grown too tall. Immediately, the assistant director had the crew spray the grain with green paint and cut off a few inches. A small stream was created to run through the village by using a pump system, which circulated the water. The system cost the studio $60 per day to maintain. A water wheel that had been deconstructed and imported from China was rebuilt and installed on the edge of the stream.

THE ASIAN ACTORS WHO APPEARED IN 'THE GOOD EARTH.'

THE CHINESE ACTORS OF ‘THE GOOD EARTH.’ FROM LEFT: ROLAND LUI, CAROLINE CHEW, CHINGWAH LEE, MARY WONG, JAMES Z.M. LEE, SOO YONG, WILLIAM LAW, LOTUS LIU, & FRANK TANG

Lee appeared in a handful of other Hollywood films, including China Smith, Blood Alley, and 30 Seconds Over Tokyo. In 1951, he became a regular in a television series called Number 9 Chinatown, in which he played a gentlemanly, poised, and knowledgeable character as a way to dispel negative misconceptions about Asians. If Lee thought that The Good Earth was a major break-through for Asian actors and that it would lead to more movies about Asians, he must have been disappointed by the time of his last screen appearance in Flower Drum Song in 1961. He had grown disillusioned with Hollywood movies, remarking “If they [give] a good image to the Chinese, it’s accidental.”

19 Responses On Casting ‘The Good Earth’
Posted By swac44 : January 5, 2015 7:09 pm

At least The Good Earth showed some progress since films like the Edward G. Robinson/Loretta Young pre-code title The Hatchet Man, but there was still a long way to go.

Posted By Emgee : January 5, 2015 8:33 pm

Would a remake be done niow with Chinese actors in the lead roles? If Ridley Scott’s comment on the casting of Exodus is anything to go on, the answer is no. So no change there.

Posted By swac44 : January 5, 2015 8:50 pm

Hey, they remade Anna & the King of Siam (aka The King & I without songs) with Chow Yun-Fat as the king. Sure, he’s Chinese and not Thai, but they were getting warmer.

Posted By Emgee : January 5, 2015 9:25 pm

Yul Brynner wasn’t Thai?!

Posted By george : January 5, 2015 10:46 pm

I’d much rather watch THE HATCHET MAN again than THE GOOD EARTH. At least HATCHET MAN is only 74 minutes and moves quickly (like other Warner movies of this time), and has great early-’30s music.

As for GOOD EARTH, I found Muni and Rainer easier to accept as Chinese than Kate Hepburn and Walter Huston in DRAGON SEED, made seven years later.

Posted By Phil : January 5, 2015 10:49 pm

Yul actually bore a slight resemblance to king Mongkut, he looked like a Hollywood version. More buff, more handsome. Google it.

Posted By Susan Doll : January 6, 2015 1:08 am

George: I saw a film still with Katharine Hepburn from DRAGON SEED. Holy cats!

Posted By Doug : January 6, 2015 1:40 am

I recall some fuss raised in the ’80′s when Maria Conchita Alonzo, born in Cuba, raised in Venezuela was picked to play an Italian in “Moscow On The Hudson”.
That smacked of racism to me-only Italians can play Italians?
Only Chinese can play Chinese?
Caricature offends everyone. Racism is horrid. But if actors are limited as to who they can portray by which ‘race’ they were born into, that is not art.
Jo Tejada, who is half Bolivian (according to IMDB) has played Mexican roles, been French in a few films, American with a capital “A”, and was even cast as a member of the Blackfoot Indian tribe.
Should she or Luise Raniner be limited in their roles, only allowed to play half Bolivians and Germans?
No. Nobody cares where Jo Tejada (Raquel Welch) was born-film makers wanted her in their films, because she was popular and sold tickets.
So was Luise Rainer in her day. Beauty trumps Racism.
Back to “A Good Earth”. Would it have been salable with Chinese only actors? In China, maybe. We can’t change the past, but in the future, with the globe shrinking and media EVERYWHERE, there are more markets for all nation groups; in China, with a population of over a billion people, Chow Yun-Fat and Ziyi Zhang may be bigger than the Beatles.

Posted By DBenson : January 6, 2015 3:27 am

On race-mixing: Did the code enforcers ever look at Charlie Chan? Chan was played by Swedish actor Warner Oland, but when Mrs. Chan appeared she was played by an Asian actress. And with their dozen or so children (also Asian actors, most notably “Number One Son” Keye Luke), sex was obviously implied.

From what I understand, Oland was more warmly welcomed in China than Wong. Chinese audiences reportedly faulted Wong for playing stereotyped roles (were there any others she could get?), while Oland, heritage notwithstanding, played a Chinese-American as heroic.

Posted By swac44 : January 6, 2015 3:28 am

Then there’s Anthony Quinn, who may hold the title for most ethnicities played by a single actor over the course of a film career.

I know Emgee is kidding, but hey, at least Yul was from the same continent as Siam. His birthplace of Vladivostok is within spitting distance of North Korea, and directly across the Sea of Japan from Sapporo, so it’s ballpark-y. He’s still the definitive Mongkut for most people, all these years later.

Posted By Susan Doll : January 6, 2015 3:50 am

Dbenson: The Production Code was interpreted by the Production Code Administration, and not all genres were treated equally. In Charlie Chan films, love and sex were never part of the content or fabric of the films. The Good Earth was turned into a melodrama in which the relationship of O-Lan and her husband is one of growing intimacy and love. Later, their marriage and bond are threatened by his attraction toward Lotus, a glamorous singer/entertainer. So, desire, sex, and fidelity are part of the drama, though, of course, much of it is implied.

Posted By DBenson : January 6, 2015 3:51 am

Find myself thinking of a documentary on the Crusades, narrated by Terry Jones. At one point they showed clips from an Arabic movie about the Muslim hero Saladin. The European crusaders were Arabic actors with almost zero attempt at disguise. Were they known faces with box office appeal, or just easier and less expensive hires than European actors in that locale?

It does usually come down to economics, but also to a lack of nerve or even basic awareness. Recall a dustup during the production of the original “Roots” miniseries: a producer talked about hiring unknowns because there weren’t enough black professionals. He was promptly and very publicly informed there were plenty of working black actors on stage and screen. One might surmise he assumed there were no top-drawer black actors because he only saw a few in supporting roles on TV.

Today it’s hard to think of any ethnic group or nationality not represented by at least a few recognizable names. Maybe not big enough to get backing for a blockbuster, but they’re visible and working. And the sort of people who are offended by non-white faces in their entertainment no longer have the power they once had — if they ever really had it — to terrify executives with a complaint.

Posted By Sharon : January 6, 2015 4:30 am

The Mr. Moto movies were hugely popular in Japan. Japanese audiences loved the fact that Moto was the smartest person in the room and could overcome larger opponents with a few judo moves; they didn’t care if he was portrayed by a white actor. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, Peter Lorre was said to be overjoyed — not because the US was at war, but because he longed to get out of his Moto contract and accept more roles in movies like “Casablanca.”

Posted By george : January 6, 2015 5:21 am

Now producers will hire black actors for leading roles … but increasingly, those actors aren’t American.

http://thegrio.com/2012/12/14/black-british-actors-making-waves-in-hollywood/#s:david-oyelowo

Posted By Jeffrey E. Ford : January 6, 2015 8:15 am

Peter Lorre may have wanted out of playing Mr. Moto, but Pearl Harbor had absolutely nothing to do with it. The series ended over two years before Pearl Harbor was bombed. In fact, it was really Japan’s aggression in China, and an overall souring of U.S./Japanese relations that led to the end of the Moto series. And later during the war, Lorre got his revenge on Moto by taking the characterization 180 degrees in the opposite direction in THE INVISIBLE AGENT. It makes for a very interesting study in contrasts. Nevertheless, I still think the Moto films are among the crowns in Lorre’s career, and he should have never regretted doing them.

Posted By Emgee : January 6, 2015 11:06 am

My argument was really about famous vs unknown actors, regardless of race. How many people in the US or Europe would go to see two unknown Chinese actors in the roles? More people than in 1937? Maybe , maybe not.

Posted By LD : January 6, 2015 11:37 am

Black and white film stock lightened skin tone so non-white actors could play multiple ethnicities. A prime example is Noble Johnson who started in silent films and was the first black actor to form his own production company, The Lincoln Motion Picture Company, preceding Micheaux. One of his roles was the Cossack in THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME.

Cousins Dolores del Rio and Ramon Novarro (Ben-Hur) were not limited to playing Mexicans and early on had successful careers.

Frank Silvera played every ethnicity.

As an adult, I know the moments on film that I consider to be cringe-worthy concerning race, and those that I have no problem with.

Posted By LD : January 6, 2015 11:45 am

Hit the wrong key trying to change the word problem to plural so comment posted early before proof reading. Two broken bones in my dominant wrist.

Posted By Jack Spencer : April 7, 2018 11:59 am

I was fortunate to know Mr. Lee as a child. I often visited his Art studio in San Francisco. He was my first and best teacher of Asian culture.

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