#623) The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

#623) The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

OR “Joad Trip”

Directed by John Ford

Written by Nunnally Johnson. Based on the novel by John Steinbeck.

Class of 1989 

The Plot: Freshly paroled from prison, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) returns to his parents’ farm in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, only to discover it abandoned. Joad learns that the family farm was foreclosed by the bank (this being the Great Depression/Dust Bowl and all), and they have plans to move to California and seek migrant work. Tom finds them before they leave and, along with ex-preacher Jim Casy (John Carradine), joins the Joads on their westward trip. The journey is fraught with hardships and setbacks, including a disappointing lack of work and support upon arrival in California. Despite these struggles, Tom remains steadfast in his belief that honest hard-working people will always band together against oppression.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film no less than “American artistry”, highlighting “Gregg Toland’s stark photography and Henry Fonda’s memorably penetrating performance”. They also include a series of production stills from the film.

But Does It Really?: Sometimes a preordained “classic” film can be underwhelming given its legendary status, while others can still wow an audience and make a solid case for their staying power. “The Grapes of Wrath” is somewhere in the middle. It’s very good, I grant you that, but I surprisingly don’t have a lot to say about this movie other than…it’s very good. I think part of that is the film’s straightforward presentation; Ford’s realistic directing style lacks pretension, with Fonda and the rest of the cast giving grounded, understated performances. While “Grapes of Wrath” is never anyone’s pick for Greatest Movie Ever Made, its effective presentation and evergreen theme of survival amongst oppression consistently ranks it among the greatest, and that is more than reason enough to induct “Grapes” into the NFR inaugural class.

Everybody Gets One: Nunnally Johnson started out as a journalist and short story author. When he sold his short story “Rough House Rosie” to Paramount for a Clara Bow vehicle, he quit the newspaper business to become a screenwriter. His screenwriting career spanned 40 years, with a brief detour into directing in the ’50s (“The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit”, “The Three Faces of Eve”). For his efforts adapting “The Grapes of Wrath” to the screen, Johnson received an Oscar nomination, and met his future wife Dorris Bowdon (Rosasharn Joad).

Wow, That’s Dated: The film is – of course – ingrained in the Depression-era culture and Dust Bowl politics of the novel’s setting. So ingrained in fact that a brief text prologue was added to the film for its international release so foreign audiences could understand the historical context.

Title Track: John Steinbeck’s wife Carol came up with the title “The Grapes of Wrath”, taken from the second line of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (“He is trampling out the vintage/where the grapes of wrath are stored”). This lyric is a reference to a passage from the New Testament. I’m a bit hazy on the details, but I guess Jesus stomped on grapes in a winepress and, I dunno, he fell down or something?

Seriously, Oscars?: A hit upon release, “The Grapes of Wrath” received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. The big winner of the night was “Rebecca“, but “Grapes” took home two major prizes: Jane Darwell for Best Supporting Actress and John Ford for Best Director (his second of an eventual four). Henry Fonda lost Best Actor to Jimmy Stewart in “The Philadelphia Story“, and would end up waiting 40 years before receiving a lifetime achievement statuette, plus a Best Actor win for “On Golden Pond” the following year.

Other notes 

  • “The Grapes of Wrath” was published in April 1939, and was immediately the most popular book of the year, subsequently winning a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The film rights were snatched up by 20th Century Fox for $70,000, with a Steinbeck mandated clause that the film adaptation would “retain the main action and social intent” of the novel. Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck co-produced the film, and the project was quickly rushed into production; filming in October and November of 1939, with its New York premiere in January 1940.
  • This is my perennial reminder that like so many other Fox properties on this list, “The Grapes of Wrath” is legally a Disney movie. Perhaps a Hooverville expansion in California Adventure?
  • Poor Henry Fonda. He’s very good in this, so good it doesn’t look like he’s acting. His Tom Joad is the stoic center of the story, as he should be, but that means no fireworks or hysterics to help you notice his great performance (even his closing monologue is powerfully subdued). I’m beginning to understand why Oscar voters gravitated more towards Jimmy Stewart’s flashier comic turn in “Philadelphia Story”.
  • Look how young John Carradine is in this! I didn’t realize Carradine made movies before he was ancient.
  • [Spoilers] It’s fun to watch Charley Grapewin go from his reserved performance as Uncle Henry in “The Wizard of Oz” to the more energetic Grandpa Joad. Sad to see him die, though.
  • Leave it to Gregg Toland to make anything look this good in black and white. The traveling shots of the American Southwest are impressive, though never as glossy or over-saturated as they would have been if the film was shot in color.
  • A good chunk of the Joad’s traveling takes place on Route 66, one of America’s first highways. A quick shot in the montage shows a sign calling it the Will Rogers Highway, an unofficial moniker no doubt popularized after the humorist’s death in 1935. Route 66 would eventually be officially dedicated to the late Rogers in 1952.
  • As always, I appreciate when I get to watch a John Ford movie on this list that isn’t a western brimming with negative racial stereotypes.
  • Shoutout to Darryl Hickman, playing the youngest child Winfield Joad. As of this writing, he is the film’s last surviving cast member!
  • A roadtrip through the Southwest to California with a car on the verge of collapse and the grandparents dying mid-trip? I didn’t realize “Grapes of Wrath” shares so much DNA with “Little Miss Sunshine”. I’m looking forward to this movie’s beauty pageant dance-off finale.
  • In a rare moment of something getting past the censors, nobody at the Hays Code offices seemed to catch Tom telling Ma to “get the hell off” the car fender. It’s pretty quiet; I only caught it because I had closed captioning on.
  • Jane Darwell had been acting in films since the silent era, but she didn’t hit her stride until she became a contract player and character actor at 20th Century Fox. Her Ma Joad is far and away her career high point (with her brief appearance as the Bird Woman in “Mary Poppins” a potential second), quietly holding the film together with her warmth and determination. Of that year’s Best Supporting Actress contenders, I’d say Judith Anderson in “Rebecca” is giving the best performance, but you can’t fault the Academy for giving Darwell the trophy. Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers is impressive, but too cold and off-putting to the average moviegoer. Ma Joad is the one you want to hug.
  • The Weedpatch Camp is a real labor camp created in the 1930s as part of the New Deal to support displaced farm workers. Even more impressive, Weedpatch is still around, and was inducted into the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.
  • If nothing else I was captivated by this movie. I found myself caring for the Joads quite a bit, hoping that each episode would be the one where they finally catch a break (it helps that I was never assigned the book in high school and genuinely didn’t know what would happen). I was surprised by how many moments of kindness there are in this film. Yes, there’s the corrupt labor officials and “red agitators”, but those are nicely balanced by regular people who help out others even when it makes things harder on themselves. Steinbeck’s work is filled with such downer material it’s nice to see these uplifting moments of humanity.
  • You’ve definitely heard Tom’s final monologue or a variation of it at some point in your life: “Where there’s a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there…” It’s delivered calmly yet stirringly by Henry Fonda, the epicenter of his future screen persona. My question: With Tom’s turn to pseudo-vigilante and looking out for the oppressed, did he just become Batman?
  • The novel’s original ending continued to chronicle the Joads after Tom left them, and things ended on a sad note – especially for Rosasharn. In an attempt to end the film somewhat optimistically, Ma’s “We’re the people” speech, spoken about two-thirds through the book, was transplanted to the end. I was surprised to see the film continue following Tom’s departure, but ending with Ma’s monologue about how “they can’t lick us” is the right choice. In addition to its upbeat by comparison presentation, it illustrates how much Ma was inspired by Tom’s words to keep fighting.

Legacy 

  • “Grapes of Wrath” was a critical and commercial hit right out the gate, solidifying John Ford as one of our great directors, and Henry Fonda as a morally just leading man. One of the biggest fans of Fonda’s performance was John Steinbeck himself, who said the actor made him “believe my own words.”
  • The closest anyone has come to remaking this film was the Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s stage adaptation of the novel that played on Broadway in the early ’90s, and was subsequently filmed for TV. The cast included Gary Sinise, Lois Smith, Terry Kinney, Jeff Perry and – Bingo! I got Steppenwolf Company Member Bingo!
  • While “The Grapes of Wrath” has maintained its legacy as a classic over 80 years later, I feel that most modern references are to the book rather than the film specifically. Fonda’s “I’ll be there” speech still gets quoted, but “Grapes of Wrath” is primarily remembered for being the good classic movie companion to a good classic book.
  • The only parody I can recall off-hand of the movie is that “South Park” episode where the main characters headed out “Californee” way to find some internet.
  • No post on this blog is complete without some classic “Simpsons” reference, so here’s Nelson Muntz with his “Grapes of Wrath” diorama. Yes, yes, very good wrath.

12 thoughts on “#623) The Grapes of Wrath (1940)”

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