The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Director: John Ford

Producers: Nonnally Johnson, Darryl F. Zanuck (20th Century Fox)

Writers: John Steinbeck (novel), Nunnally Johnson (screenplay)

Photography: Gregg Toland

Music: Alfred Newman

Cast: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Charley Grapewin, Dorris Bowdon, Russell Simpson, O.Z. Whitehead, John Qualen, Eddie Quillan, Zeffie Tilbury, Frank Sully, Frank Darien, Darryl Hickman, Shirley Mills, Roger Imhof

Part of the power of movies is their ability to provide reference points to various historical events. Rather than read it in a textbook alone, one can forever relate pieces of history to a particular movie, recalling the film’s images and mood each time the historical subject comes up. As for the Great Depression, and the accompanying Dust Bowl of the 1930s, no film is more definitive, or more accurate, than The Grapes of Wrath.

The 1939 source novel by John Steinbeck was an enormous hit, as people read the plight of the Joad family as therapy for their own everyday hardship. When it came to the movies, though, lighter, escapist films were all the rage, and it wasn’t certain how the public would react to such a film about the salt of the earth. Famed producer Darryl F. Zanuck took a chance and bought the rights to the novel for $75,000, and 20th Century Fox released the film the same year the novel won the Pulitzer Prize. It would be Hollywood’s first real attempt to address the Great Depression, and Zanuck wanted to make sure he got it right.

To match Steinbeck’s thoroughly researched novel, Zanuck wanted his own authenticity, bringing in journalist Nunnally Johnson to adapt the novel to the screen (she also produced), and more importantly bagging director John Ford, who a year after Stagecoach knew a thing or two about Westward-moving pictures. The result was a commercial and critical success, nominated for Best Picture, though losing to Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). In hindsight, The Grapes of Wrath looks like best film of 1940. And who knows? If Ford had won Best Picture for it, the Academy may not have felt obligated to award him the following year for How Green Was My Valley (1941), allowing the award to go to its rightful owner, Citizen Kane, another showcase for Wrath cinematographer Gregg Toland. With Toland, Ford, and Henry Fonda in his seminal performance, The Grapes of Wrath is one fine piece of Americana.

On parole after serving four of his seven-year sentence for manslaughter, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) returns home to Oklahoma, only to find that his family as been evicted during the Dust Bowl drought. Together, the Joads decide to head Westward after a wanted ad for 800 grape pickers in California, not knowing that several thousand others have headed there for the same 800 jobs. Loading down the family Hudson truck with the belongings of 13 people — Ma Joad (Jane Darwell), Pa Joad (Russell Simpson), Grandpa (Charley Grapewin), Grandma (Zeffie Tilbury), Uncle John (Frank Darien), Tom and his five siblings, Noah (Frank Sully), Al (O.Z. Whitehead), Winfield (Darryl Hickman), Ruthie (Shirley Mills) and the pregnant Rosasharn (Dorris Bowdon), Rosasharn’s new hubbie Connie Rivers (Eddie Quillan) and ex-preacher friend Casy (John Carradine) — the group sets off on a 2,000 mile journey down Highway 66, trying desperately to survive and, even harder, to retain some sense of identity after being ripped away from their roots.

Death and misery hangs oh so close over the Joad family truck, with new problems arriving each step of the way on the back of human ignorance. In addition to the man-made Dust Bowl, caused by years of farmers not rotating their crops, the problems are exacorbated by greedy bankers running people off their land, dishonest work contractors who take advantage of men starving for work and cops in cahoots with these contractors keeping the working man down. The saddest parts of the film come not when people die (and several do), but when we see the affects on the living — townspeople running out the Joads because they don’t want any more unemployed Okies around, a gas station attendant’s look of rejection when he learns the Joads only have one vehicle needing filling, Ma Joad burning all of her possessions because there’s no room to take them and Muley (John Qualen) scooping soil into his hand and crying, “That’s what makes it are’n. Bein’ born on it and workin’ on it and dyin’, dyin’ on it! And not no piece of paper with writin’ on it!”

“Ma, there comes a time when a man gets mad,” Tom says, expressing that he’s had enough of man’s injustice overshadowing even nature’s plight. Soon, he’s in trouble with the law again, tackling a crooked cop who carelessly shot a woman, and sneaking off with Casy and other strikers to join in one of the first meetings of workers’ rights. For Tom, there’s nothing to lose, and a whole world of change to be made: “Well, as long as I’m an outlaw anyways, maybe I can do somethin’. Maybe I can find out sum’n. Just scrounge around and maybe find out what it is that’s wrong. And see if ain’t som’n can be done about it.”

Such a noble cause makes Tom Joad a hero for all time, #12 on AFI’s 50 Greatest Heroes. For the part, Ford entrusted the 34-year-old Fonda, who had successfully carried a pair of Ford films the previous year in Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk. To the part, Fonda brings a dreamer’s grace, giving a performance recently voted #51 all-time by Premiere magazine, and one that established Fonda as the ultimate moral center of movies, paving the way for future message films like William Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957). Though nominated, he would lose Best Actor to Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story (1940), a fine performance but one that was obviously a make-up award for his brilliance in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). The make-up for Stewart was a hold-up for Fonda, who would have to wait until 1958 before he was nominated again (12 Angry Men) and all the way until 1982 before he finally took Best Actor with his final role in On Golden Pond (though the Academy had given him an honorary career Oscar the year before).

Aiding Fonda’s portrayal of Tom Joad is the fact that we believe his connections with the rest of his on-screen family. Wrath‘s supporting cast is full of Ford regulars, both Darwell and Simpson appearing in My Darling Clementine (1946), Qualen in The Searchers (1956) and Carradine, father of Keith Carradine (Nashville), in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Of these, Darwell won Best Supporting Actress for her famous motherly words of wisdom: “Rich fellas come up and they die, and their kids ain’t no good and they die out, too. But we keep on coming. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out, they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ’cause we’re the people.” Though arguably the most famous aspect of the movie, Darwell’s stoicism is something scholar David Thomson doesn’t buy. It’s “a performance and a film that I find as touching as a politician’s apology,” Thomson writes, citing a perceived inauthenticity in a “cliche view of working people offered to them like a meal on polling day.” (D)

Ironic, considering Thomson’s political analogy, is the fact that President Roosevelt himself chose that year’s Oscars to give a speech about the power of American cinema, and that he would applaud Wrath’s ability to project the plight of Americans during that period. The fact that The Grapes of Wrath would attract the attention of the New Deal president speaks volumes about both its relevance and quality. That Ford would use the film win his second Oscar is no surprise. The film undoubtedly stands as his greatest non-western.

The key to his work, here, is his collaboration with Toland, the pupil of cinematography legend Arthur Miller who had just completed his beautiful shoot on Wuthering Heights (1939). Together, Ford and Toland set out to create a visual style of cinema verite, a documentary feel that would bring to life the harsh conditions of the period. The result is absolutely beautiful to look at, in a gritty, down-to-earth sort of way. As cinematographer John Bailey (Groundhog Day) said in the AFI documentary Visions of Light, “You can take frames from Grapes of Wrath and put them alongside the WPA photos of Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange or Doris Ulmann or anybody and it’s really hard to tell the difference.” (B)

In addition to being picturesque of its time, The Grapes of Wrath is visually ahead of its time. Though technically worn down by time, the aesthetic power of the images achieved by Ford and Toland never fade — the opening extreme long shot of Fonda in the distance, a lone fingure approaching a crossroads; low-key lighting making scenes to appear lit solely by candlelight, match flame or flashlight; superimposing a CAT tractor tire close-up over shots of tractors tearing across the country; the shot of Muley and family standing in disbelief as their house is bulldozed to the ground, the camera slowly moving from their faces to their three lonely shadows on the ground, three humans who’ve become “graveyard ghosts;” that classic mirror shot of Ma Joad holding her earrings up to ears one last time; the faces of three Joads reflecting off the insid of the windshield, appearing superimposed over the landscape outside the truck; the 33-second long-take of the Joads’ arrival at the government camp, shot from the perspective of the truck, studying the faces of those Okies already there, faces that seem to say, “You too?”; the tracking shot following the truck into Keene Ranch, a shouting man pushed out of the way of the camera at the last second; the shot of Ma Joad sitting alone, deep in the frame at the edge of a giant, empty dance floor; and the almost lyrical shots of those big open skies, dark clouds on top, light shining through underneath, as the Joad family Hudson drives toward the horizon line.

But topping any individual techniques is Ford’s pacing, so good throughout that he’s able to create the feeling of an epic odyssey out of a two-hour film. By treating its Depression-era subject matter with extraordinary pathos, Ford parts the Wrath‘s bleak material with an air of hope, that of folks helping other folks out in times of need, be it a diner manager offering discount bread to Pa Joad, or Ma Joad sparing some stew to a swarm of hungry children. Such moments of humanity catapult The Grapes of Wrath to #7 on the AFI’s 100 Cheers, churning inspiration even as viewers are uncertain what the future holds for the Joads. Zanuck, worried about the ending, distributed scripts to his cast and crew with the last several pages missing (A), and in the end, was not completely happy with the result: “It’s a good picture. It’s meaty and down to earth. But I think it needs a happier ending.” (C)

What those like Zanuck seem to forget is that Ford did indeed “happy” up the ending as compared to the book. In the film, the Joads suffer hardship only to later find hope in a camp, while in the novel, the family starts out doing alright in the camp before meeting hardship in the end. And the film’s final “We’re the people” scene was added to please movie audiences, a drastic change from Steinbeck’s written finale — Rosasharn’s baby is stillborn, so she breast feeds a starving, dying man in a barn.

At the time, Steinbeck was great fodder for film — his Of Mice and Men (1939) was made by Lewis Milestone the previous year — and of all that fodder, The Grapes of Wrath made for the best big screen adaptation. When Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, he said, “I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man, has no dedication nor any membership in literature.” (A) Such is the spirit of The Grapes of Wrath, both the novel and the film calling the least of us to keep pressing on, and the most well-off of us to help them press on, working together to ensure a better life for future generations. They are a reminder that our work as human beings, and thus our souls, will live on long after we’re gone. This is what makes Fonda’s final speech so powerful, and largely why the AFI chose the film as the #7 most inspirational film of all time:

“A fella ain’t got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody … I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready. And when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build, I’ll be there, too.”


CITE A: Grapes of Wrath DVD booklet
CITE B: AFI Documentary Visions of Light
CITE D: David Thomson, New Biographical Dictionary of Film

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