Wednesday, February 17, 2010


From Cornell University
Seventy years ago, on April 14, 1939, The Viking Press in New York officially published John Steinbeck's searing novel The Grapes of Wrath. It was released on the fourth anniversary of Black Sunday, when the worst dust storm in recent American history had rolled across the Great Plains blotting out the sun and later depositing airborne topsoil 1,000 miles east in Washington DC.
Steinbeck thought his novel was too raw for wide general appeal: "I've done my damndest to rip a reader's nerves to rags," he told his editor in early 1939. But despite its unflinching detail, gritty language, and controversial reception (the American Library Association includes it among the 100 most frequently banned and/or challenged books), the Grapes of Wrath has attained classic status and appears on many best novels lists.
(BBC News)

O. Z. Whitehead, Dorris Bowdon, Frank Darien
Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson, and Henry Fonda
From 20th Century Fox/John Springer Collection/Corbis


For most of us today, the Great Depression of the 1930’s is something we may have read about in our history books. For anyone still alive during the depression experiencing it was something that would never be forgotten. If these folks shared their memories, they may talk about “Hooverville” if they lived in a large city like New York or Seattle. There were “Hoovervillle’s in many cities across the country. If they lived in Oklahoma, they would tell you about the dustbowl that ruined the farmland and the mortgage companies, and banks that foreclosed on their land.
John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath” is arguably the most famous film about the depression and was one of the first films selected to be in the National Film Registry. Based on John Steinbeck’s classic novel, the film follows the Joad family from the dustbowl of Oklahoma as they journey to what they hope is a better life in California. Few other films capture the gloom, the harshness, the misery of proud people remaining strong in the face of economic destruction, like Ford’s masterpiece (William Wellman’s “Wild Boys of the Road” and King Vidor’s “Our Daily Bread” are strong competitors). Looking back, this may seem like an unlikely project for director John Ford, a political conservative in his later years however, in an earlier time Ford was a liberal, so his filming a book that has been a foundation for liberal empathy is not as extraordinary as one may think. Additionally, if you look at the film as a study of man’s passage to the western frontier, then Ford is certainly in familiar territory as he has made some of the most successful films about the transition and opening of the west with such works as “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”, “Rio Grande”, and “The Iron Horse.” “The Grapes of Wrath’ fits right in as a story of families looking for new land to settle and start life anew.
(John Greco at

The opening scene
From Some Came Running

In the first scene we see Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), walking down a wide open road, just released from jail after four years for killing a man in a barroom brawl. He hitches a ride from a reluctant truck driver telling the driver that a good man would defy the company rule about not picking up hitchhikers. Right away, it becomes evident that Joad is a man who is fighting the “system”, a theme that is prevalent throughout the film. In many scenes there is no one individual to blame, it’s the system that is responsible. When Muley Graves, the Joad’s family neighbor, has his land taken away he wants to shoot whoever is responsible only to be told there’s no one individual, it’s a company that‘s taking the land and behind that company is another faceless company.
(John Greco at

The faces reflected in the windshield
The Joads trek through the California desert by nightfall
From Some Came Running

All images from

Jane Darwell (above) plays Ma Joad, the staunchly loving mother of the Joad family. Darwell's Ma Joad knows how to distribute limited resources -- like food and love -- appropriately and evenly among her broad clan. Yet, even she does seem to hold a special reserve for her oldest, Tom (Henry Fonda in a revelation of a performance), who has just now arrived home from a stint in the state pen.
Tom has returned to discover that his family -- longterm Ozark sharecroppers -- have been evicted and are now homeless. In fact, when Tom finally finds them, the Joads are readying to pull up and move on again, this time to the promise of work in California. Before they hit the road on Route 66, Darwell's Ma Joad sits in the empty house, contemplating a few treasures -- a picture postcard, a newspaper clipping, a tiny ceramic dog, and a pair of old fashioned earrings -- artifacts of the life she and her family are leaving behind.
Director John Ford takes quiet care in this short scene to afford Darwell's Ma Joad an elegance and a nobility that belies the poverty and squalor of her circumstances. Indeed, both Darwell and Ford seem -- at every turn -- to remind the audience that Ma Joad is a character who deserves our respect, not our pity.
The film stars Henry Fonda (12 Angry Men, The Tin Star) as Tom Joad, the amazing Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, John Carradine as Casy, and a host of others to round out the Joad family and supporting characters. The film would pick up two Oscars, one for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Darwell) and one for director John Ford. It was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Fonda), Best Film Editing, Best Sound Recording, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture. In 1963, The Grapes of Wrath won a Blue Ribbon Award for Best Foreign Language Picture. It also won the 1940 USA National Board of Review prize for Best Picture.
The Grapes of Wrath is John Ford’s masterpiece, a film that captures in on the social protest themes of some of Ford’s other films instead of the magic of the Westerns by which he was so well known. Ford, instead, tells a sweeping story of tragedy and epic struggle against “the man”. He pulls it together in lush black and white cinema, moving characters and pulling in the audience like a master at work. The direction is truly something as the subtle touches pull on the heartstrings of the viewer while the grandeur of it all do the same.
(The Canadian Cinephile’s Reviews)

From moderntimes
Henry Fonda is tremendous as Tom Joad, bringing out the “good man” character to great levels. He really urges the audience through the picture, rising up to injustice and delivering classic lines with such intensity and grace that you almost forget you’re watching a film.
(The Canadian Cinephile’s Reviews)
He remains the focus of the film, his clear-eyed sceptical gaze reaching out to the camera no matter where he stands in the frame. The strength of his moral convictions is all the more striking for the imperfection of the character which supports them. Just released from jail for a murder, Tom is unrepentant: "Knocked his head plumb to squash," he recalls to an alarmed truck driver who gives him a lift. He has little understanding of politics ("What's these 'Reds' anyway?"), enjoys a drink and a dance, but has no time for abstract discussions. That such a man can be roused to moral wrath by injustice dramatizes the self-evident corruption of the system, and the belief in his conviction carries an audience to a conclusion startlingly radical by the standards of the time. Ford's reactionary politics, his populism and republicanism, must have stood in direct contradiction of the book's harsh message, which may explain his acceptance to the final suger-coated scene. Yet in Ford's world, to keep faith meant more than any political creed; better to believe in an error than not to believe at all. When Ma Joad at the end of The Grapes of Wrath professes the absolute faith of a peasant people in simple survival, one hears Ford's voice as clearly as that of writer, producer or star.
(John Baxter at Film Reference)
When released the film was well received by the film critics. But, it did have its detractors especially due to the leftist political overtones of the film.
Film critic Frank S. Nuggent, writing for The New York Times, liked the film's screenplay, the direction of the film and the acting. He wrote, "In the vast library where the celluloid literature of the screen is stored there is one small, uncrowded shelf devoted to the cinema's masterworks, to those films which by dignity of theme and excellence of treatment seem to be of enduring artistry, seem destined to be recalled not merely at the end of their particular year but whenever great motion pictures are mentioned. To that shelf of screen classics Twentieth Century-Fox yesterday added its version of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, adapted by Nunnally Johnson, directed by John Ford and performed at the Rivoli by a cast of such uniform excellence and suitability that we should be doing its other members an injustice by saying it was 'headed' by Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine and Russell Simpson."
When critic Bosley Crowther, called the dean of American film critics, retired in 1967, he named The Grapes of Wrath one of the best fifty films ever made. (N.B.: 40% of the works Crowther named were foreign films.)
In a film review written for Time magazine by its editor Whittaker Chambers, an outspoken opponent of communism, he separated his views of Steinbeck's novel from Ford's film, which he liked. Chambers wrote, "But people who go to pictures for the sake of seeing pictures will see a great one. For The Grapes of Wrath is possibly the best picture ever made from a so-so book...Camera craft purged the picture of the editorial rash that blotched the Steinbeck book. Cleared of excrescences, the residue is a great human story which made thousands of people, who damned the novel's phony conclusions, read it. It is the saga of an authentic U.S. farming family who lose their land. They wander, they suffer, but they endure. They are never quite defeated, and their survival is itself a triumph."

Henry Fonda as Tom Joad during his final speech

"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."

High-angle view of moviegoers, circa 1940
'The Grapes Of Wrath' - advertised on the marquee
Times Square, midtown Manhattan, New York City
Photo by A. E. French/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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