Transfer of the [Pearl S.] Buck novel from page to celluloid, with a stop-off via the stage [play by Owen and Donald Davis], is a tough adaptation job. The characters are 100% Chinese. In many scenes such occidentals as Paul Muni and Walter Connolly are mixed with genuine Orientals for direct conversational contact, and no harmful false note is struck. Luise Rainer’s Viennese amidst this mumble-jumble of dialects is but slightly noticeable, and then only at the beginning.
The marriage of Wang and O-Lan, their raising of the family and care of their land, the drought, Wang’s rise to wealth, his desertion of the farm and his taking of a second wife, his return to the farm and the earth are faithfully transcribed. There are some departures for brevity’s sake and some additions, such as the locust plague, which is a helpful contribution rather than a distraction, but the members of the House of Wang are Pearl Buck’s original creations without change in this reported $3 million production.
Muni as Wang, with a great makeup, is a splendid lead. Rainer has more difficulty, since her features are not so receptive to Oriental makeup. Yet a good actress overcomes these things, and Luise Rainer is an actress. Connolly as the semi-villainous and greedy uncle, takes the few laughts in a picture which is very sparing with its lightness. Tilly Losch, a dancer by profession, does little dancing, but plenty of good playing, as the second wife, and Charley Grapewin is splendid as the father of Wang.
The slightly tinted and brownish sepia hues, shading some of the farm sequences, give a magnificent effect.
1937: Best Actress (Luise Rainer), Cinematography.
Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Editing