The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
“The Joads step right out of the pages of the novel that has shocked millions!”
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Cast: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine
Synopsis: A poor Midwest family is forced off of their land. They travel to California, suffering the misfortunes of the homeless in the Great Depression.
For many of its original audience, watching John Ford’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath in 1940 must have been an uncomfortable experience. A lot of them would have had recent and bitter first-hand experience of the harsh conditions and injustices highlighted by the film, and the recent comparative prosperity created by World War II would have done little to dispel memories of what had been a nightmare existence for many. It almost beggars belief that the events depicted could have taken place in what was one of the world’s wealthiest countries before the Great Depression. Seventy-five years later, The Grapes of Wrath still makes for grim viewing even though it avoids much of the unrelenting bleakness of Steinbeck’s novel and, understandably for the time, steers well clear of its controversial ending.
Henry Fonda (Drums Along the Mohawk, Once Upon a Time in the West) was so keen to play the part of Tom Joad that he committed to a seven-year contract with Darryl F. Zanuck’s Twentieth Century-Fox in order to secure it. He was a good match for the part of the rough-hewn son of Oklahoma tenant farmers. There was always a hint of coldness beneath Fonda’s clean-cut, All-American looks; it was a quality Hollywood rarely exploited in the 1930s and ‘40s, but it was put to good use here. Joad is no conventional movie hero – he’s an ex-con returning home after serving time for killing a man in a bar brawl. He’ll kill again, later in the picture, but this time it’s more of a political murder committed in self-defence, and it illustrates the personal journey Joad has travelled. Fonda reveals glimpses of this steely undercurrent with a miserly touch, convincing us that this is an essentially good man capable, under extreme circumstances, of committing bad deeds.
The cross-country trek from Oklahoma to California undertaken by the Joad family in an overloaded, beat-up truck is an epic one. Prompted by a flyer offering 800 jobs that was probably received by thousands, it’s a desperate flight from reality towards an unlikely paradise. The family is led by Ma (Jane Darwell – My Darling Clementine, 3 Godfathers – in an Oscar-winning performance), who understands all too well that the kind of hardship they are suffering can break families. While Tom her husband (Russell Simpson – My Darling Clementine, Along Came Jones) and Tom are preoccupied with the task of finding work, she focuses on keeping the family together. But two members die on the journey, and the reality that greets the surviving members is far removed from the promise they’ve been sold.
Darwell gave a career best as the weary but indomitable Ma Joad for whom this became a signature role, even though she would go on to give equally memorable performances against type in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and Caged (1950). Also effective in a relatively minor, but no less pivotal role, was John Carradine (Stagecoach, The Hound of the Baskervilles) as Casey, the former preacher turned drifter who serves as a social conscience in the absence of any solutions from organised religion.
It’s probable that The Grapes of Wrath would not have made it to the screen until at least the late 1950s had Zanuck not produced this version in the brief window between US anti-Communist sentiment afforded by the onset of WWII. The film follows the socialist ideology propounded by Steinbeck, but is careful to distance itself from Communism. Nevertheless, despite its cautiously trodden path, The Grapes of Wrath earned both Steinbeck and Ford an investigation by McCarthy’s House UnAmerican Activities Committee in the 1950s. It seems odd, though, to see a studio-produced movie following such a rigorously left-wing line: after all, the studios were hardly exemplary employers at the time….
The Grapes of Wrath is an authentic American classic, a lyrical paean to the common man. While its portrayals of the newly-created downtrodden underclass and cold-hearted figures of authority might be a tad simplistic, it’s a rigid division of good and bad that adds potency and poignancy to an already powerful story. And the cruelty and indifference of those who wield sticks is countered by the ordinary man in the street, as witnessed in the famous diner scene in which customers’ automatic mistrust of someone down on their luck gives way to sympathetic but guarded acts of spontaneous kindness. Nobody could have watched that scene without understanding the message and feeling a guilty kind of relief: Count yourself lucky; there but for the Grace of God…
(Reviewed 16th January 2015)