(American, 1940, 128 minutes, b&w, 35mm)
It is an unforgettably concise image. An eerily flat landscape, windblown, tired, empty. The division between the gray earth and the gray sky is as precise as it is uninviting. A gaunt man enters that harsh geometry, surveys it with a look of sad recognition, and then sets off into it. It is the beginning of The Grapes of Wrath, and with this paean to the unconquerable spirit of the people of the Dust Bowl, John Ford laid indisputable claim to being the cinematic poet laureate of the common man.
From the moment it was published in 1939, The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck's sprawling novel of social consciousness, had simultaneously intrigued and repulsed Hollywood. As a bestseller, it carried great box office potential. But the book's powerful economic analysis alienated the movie moguls, most of who were extremely conservative.
Steinbeck didn't think the book could be filmed. After one of his trademark marathon writing sessions on July 5, 1938, a day when he wrote 2,200 words, an entire chapter at a single sitting, Steinbeck wrote to his agent: "I am quite sure no picture company would want this new book whole and it is not for sale any other way. It pulls no punches at all and may get us all into trouble but if so -- so."
Darryl F. Zanuck, head of production at Twentieth Century-Fox, was the closest thing to a political liberal the industry could offer in its front offices. In The Grapes of Wrath, Zanuck, an exceptionally able "story man," also saw a dramatic tale of human courage, already loaded with expressly cinematic episodes. Zanuck, during his days in a similar position at Warner Brothers earlier in the decade, had made that studio the home of punchy, breathless films about the Depression, like Wild Boys of the Road and Heroes for Sale. He envisioned The Grapes of Wrath as two kinds of film at the same time. First, it would be a document about the men and women whom Franklin Roosevelt had called in early 1933 "ill housed, ill-fed, and ill-clothed... the pall of family disaster hang[ing] over them day by day." Second, it would be a drama of fundamentally American optimism, of the triumph of "the little people" over the tyranny of economics and the poison of class prejudice.
Zanuck could look to a stable of directors under contract to Fox who were skilled in the portrayal of Americana. There was Henry Hathaway, who had directed some of the first Technicolor location photography for Trail of the Lonesome Pine, as well as other films of American frontier life like the salmon fishing adventure Spawn of the North, and was then preparing the epic biographical film Brigham Young, Frontiersman. There was also Henry King, whose 1921 T'olable David is still considered the finest portrayal of rural life in American cinema history. King had presented several visually and narratively slices of American life in films such as In Old Chicago, Chad Hanna, and Little Old New York, and had given the previous year's Jesse James an unusual populist twist. And there was John Ford.
Ford went back to the silent days, as well, and a long apprenticeship in the Western. His best films, such as 1924's The Iron Horse and 1935's The Informer, had shown both a vivid pictorial sense and a deep sympathy for ordinary men and women. But it was Ford's highly successful series of films at Fox with Will Rogers, including Judge Priest (1934) and Steamboat Round the Bend (1935) that combined these predilections with a specifically American sensibility, and his best films thereafter showed a combination of self-deprecating humor, an awareness of unique American landscapes, and a profound sense of the extraordinary qualities of the ordinary American. With 1939's Young Mr. Lincoln, Ford showed an almost mystical understanding of the spiritual sources of American nationhood in a masterwork that deftly identified the personal with the political. It was this sure touch with the American character that Ford would bring to The Grapes of Wrath.
Ford assembled a team of creative people for the film without equal. Screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and leading man Henry Fonda turned in arguably the most memorable work in their long careers. The cadre of character actors who make up the Joad family, their friends, and antagonists, are both picturesque and plausible, their faces a veritable gallery of the many emotions the film presents; there is John Carradine as Casey, the god-haunted radical preacher, and John Qualen as Mulee, reduced to a scuttling refugee on his own land. But it was cinematographer Gregg Toland who brought the look of drought-killed Oklahoma, and the dangerous Eden of California, to the screen in a manner that continues to make the argument that black-and-white film is infinitely more expressive than color. Toland's wide-angle lenses and deep focus shooting make the faces of the beleaguered Joads seem strained and undernourished in close-up, and give the vast dusty emptiness of Salisaw County, Oklahoma a visual breadth not seen in other films until the advent of Cinemascope in the 50's.
Ford and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson made their most significant change in Steinbeck's concept with the ending of the film. For Steinbeck's bitter, famously surreal ending, they chose instead a speech by Ma Joad, brilliantly incarnated by massive, yet fragile Jane Darwell, and a series of images that turn the hard road the Joad family has been traveling into an allegory for a nation cruelly battered by Depression and living under the long shadow of the European war, but somehow, still "goin' on forever."
The Grapes of Wrath was a happy combination of popular success and an artistic triumph. The most distinguished Left American cultural critic of the period, Otis Ferguson, who was usually exasperated with the Hollywood cinema, wrote that The Grapes of Wrath was "The most mature motion picture that has ever been made, in feeling, in purpose, and in the use of the medium." It was an opinion shared by many, including Steinbeck, who wrote "Zanuck has more than kept his word. He has a hard, straight picture in which the actors are submerged so completely that it looks and feels like a documentary film and certainly it has a hard, truthful ring. No punches were pulled -- in fact, with descriptive matter removed, it is a harsher thing than the book, by far. It seems unbelievable but it is true."
Among the many future filmmakers who would be influenced by The Grapes of Wrath's eloquent visual statement and deep sympathy for humanity was Orson Welles, then just arriving in Hollywod. For his cinematographer on his sublime debut film, Citizen Kane, Welles chose the man who had made The Grapes of Wrath so visually persuasive, Gregg Toland. And decades later, when asked which American directors he had learned the most from, Orson Welles answered with a smile, "The old masters... By which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford."
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
The following is taken from a review by Frank S. Nugent that appeared in The New York Times, January 25, 1940:
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"….
Its greatness as a picture lies in many things, not all of them reducible to words. It is difficult, for example, to discuss John Ford’s direction, except in pictorial terms. His employment of camera is reportage and editorial and dramatization by turns or all in one. Steinbeck described the Dust Bowl and its farmers, used page on page to do it. Ford’s cameras turn off a white-striped highway, follow Tom Joad scuffling through the dust to the empty farmhouse, see through Muley’s eyes the pain of surrendering the land and the hopelessness of trying to resist the tractors. A swift sequence or two, and all that Steinbeck said has been said and burned indelibly into memory by a director, a camera and a cast.
The following is an excerpt from the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers:
A pet project of Darryl Zanuck’s, The Grapes of Wrath exercised the packaging talents of Fox’s studio head for a large part of 1939 as he put together a team appropriate to a book with the stature of Steinbeck’s novel. John Ford was an obvious choice to direct, Dudley Nichols to write the script, and Henry Fonda to star as Tom Joad, the uneducated ex-convict "Oakie" who becomes the personification of flinty Midwestern integrity and moral worth. Knowing Fonda’s wish to play Joad, Zanuck lured him into signing an eight-picture contract by advertising his intention to cast in the role either Don Ameche or Tyrone Power….
The film’s opening image is of Tom Joad walking with tireless application out of the flat Midwestern landscape against a counterpoint of leaning telephone poles, of society confronted by an ecological and historical disaster against which it is helpless to act. Accustomed to such material from his frontier films, Ford took instinctive and instant command.
Clearly he felt an affinity with the plight of the dispossessed Kansas farmers of Steinbeck’s story, which mirrored that of his Irish forebears turned off the land in the potato famine of the 19th century. And he had already established in films like Four Men and a Prayer the image of the family as not only unbreakable but an instrument for change, an institution that could act to improve social conditions. Throughout the film, it is the independents like John Carradine’s itinerant preacher Casey and the half-mad fugitive Muley (John Qualen) who seem lost, desperate for companionship, while Jane Darwell and Russell Simpson as Ma and Pa Joad exhale a sense of calm and confidence. As Ma affirms at the end of the film, in a scene added by Zanuck to underline the moral and blunt the harsh dying fall of the novel, no force can destroy the will of people who are determined to live….
The Grapes of Wrath abounds with examples of Ford’s skill in visual language. Poor talkers, the Joads express much in a way of standing, looking, responding to the land through which they pass. Ma Joad’s cleaning up of the old house is shown largely without dialogue, but her careful turning out of a box of mementoes, the discovery of a pair of earrings and her action of putting them on her ears and looking up into the dark at some half-forgotten moment of youthful pleasure could hardly be bettered with words. Jane Darwell is perhaps too plump, matriarchal, too Irish for her role, and Ford’s first choice, Beulah Bondi, has a greater physical claim to the part with her gaunt, stringy resilience, but so effective is Ford’s use of the actress that one can no longer imagine anyone else playing it….
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 of the final sugar-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.
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