Monday, June 23, 2014

Grapes of Wrath, The (1940)

20th Century-Fox
Director: John Ford


John Steinbeck’s 1939 Pulitzer Prize novel “The Grapes of Wrath” would be no easy task in adapting to the screen with the story’s darker outlook, which included politics, depressing look at American suffering, and injustice. In a Hollywood synonymous for producing happy endings, this source material would not be a good starting point for your usual glossy Hollywood production. Director John Ford and 20th Century-Fox together would produce a feature film which captured the plight of many Americans during the Great Depression while presenting a different outlook from the bright and shiny world Hollywood usually flashed on the screen on a daily basis.

The Grapes of Wrath is a Depression era drama about a family from Oklahoma that loses their farm and sets out for California with rumored promises of work and prosperity and the troubles they encounter, including crooked capitalistic ideals and heartbreak. Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) returns to his Oklahoma home after years in prison to find his family’s home deserted as he learns they were foreclosed on. With hope of plentiful well-paying jobs the large Joad family set west to California. Things are not as rosy as they seemed as the family encounter a migrant work camp where the laborers are paid half of what they were promised and taken advantage of at the company store. Tom inadvertently kills a threatening guard making him a marked man on parole and the family moves on a new camp ran democratically by the people that live within its walls. Their stay here teaches the Joad’s the importance of community over the establishment that tries to bring it down. Due to the injustice he has witnessed Tom decides to move on a fight for social reform, leaving Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) as the matriarch to become the strength of the family, having herself grown to not fear the change, believing that the family will persevere.

The feature is a story of social injustice and how man can take advantage of others without the heart that it will heavily affect others. Henry Fonda’s Tom is the everyman that is thrusted into a world transformed from what he left behind. On display is the greed of capitalism as men use desperate migrant laborers to fatten their own pocket books at the hands of those in need.

At this time in Hollywood most of its studio heads and filmmakers were heavily conservative, including director John Ford, which makes this film so surprising with its socialistic undertones. During a period of when many American were suffering to find work The Grapes of Wrath provided a cinematic voice to those that suffered mightily from economic hardships of the period.

In adapting the sorrowful novel by John Steinbeck to the screen the actions of the movie stick rather closely to the original source material, at least for the most part. The first half of the movie depicts the Joads as they leave Oklahoma is a faithful recreation of the novels material, but the second half of the tale would be reshuffled to make a picture that had a brighter ending then the novel originally intended. In the novel the Joads visit the friendly camp first, build hope for California before encountering the crooked camp that takes advantage of its laborers. The novel ends on very hard times with despair, while the film reverses the order in which they see these two camps, leaving us with a sense of “we will fight on” with a down, but determined Tom and an equally determined Ma after visiting the more civilized camp second. These more positive ending left audiences with inspiration during this time of economic hardship, not to mention the threat of war waging in Europe, as Hollywood once again attempted to make a sad story into a happier one.

By the time John Ford took on the film he was already a well-traveled and celebrated director of many features film, most notably his westerns which were recently coming back into vogue with the help of his recent masterpiece Stagecoach. In The Grapes of Wrath Ford makes the picture gritty and real not with the often artistic looking shallow focus, but with a deep focus that made nearly everything in frame clear. This gave the images a raw look, filmed in the simplest manner, absorbing both the characters in the foreground and the depressing images of the wastelands in the background.  It is an artist measure that gets across the poverty that surrounds this family and the people they encounter.

His images of the suffering and impoverished likens to the famous photographs by Dorothea Lange who documented the impoverished in the” Hoovervilles” and shanty towns that spread throughout Depression era America. Ford’s images are a moving representation of what she did in still photography at times during the picture.

Despite his conservative outlook on life Ford’s filmmaking still allowed him to portray a world very much filled with ugliness. The cinematic endeavor would garner Ford his second Academy Award for best director, further cementing him as one of the greatest directors of the period and all time.

To star in Ford’s picture would be Henry Fonda who had recently become one of the director’s favorite actors. Fonda was becoming more and more recognizable as a leading actor, and with the dramatic role as Tom Joad would cement himself as one of Hollywood’s best serious dramatic actors. His tall, slender build made him physically an easy cast of an impoverished migrant worker, but it was his quiet, determined demeanor that made his performance memorable. Fonda would leave a lasting imprint on the film, the John Steinbeck story, and Hollywood as he would be nominated for best actor for his vivid performance.

The feature’s second of two Academy Awards would come from the performance of Jane Darwell who portrayed Ma, Tom’s loving mother and the worried matriarch of the Joad family. Apart from Fonda’s Tom the character of Ma in the picture goes through the most change and sorrow. She serves mostly as a bystander to the overall plot, but remains as an emotional core, becoming the character that audience relates to the most as she watches all the tragedy and strife that strikes her family on their trek to find a better life. She is the unconditional loving mother that anyone would want in hard times and it is she that delivers the memorable last words to the picture as she proclaims they will carry on , because they are “the people” before the movie fades out. Darwell’s stout build and plain country demeanor makes her the ideal “Ma” in just about any film, but ere she is able to stretch her dramatic wings and provide an award winning performance.

Also serving in a memorable role is John Carradine as the former preacher that had “lost the spirit” and rides with the Joad’s to California before dying at the hands of oppressive guards at the crooked migrant camp. Carradine might be best remembered for his his slender build and menacingly curious eyes, but here he plays a very sympathetic character of Jim Casey, a wandering man that had lost his faith. His performance matches his character so very well as a man who is searching to refill a hole in his heart that was once occupied by preaching. The movie never explains exactly what had caused him to lose his faith and leave the church, but can be implied that it was because of the horrible economic downturn that made him question the meaning of life. Carradine’s performance is seen primarily in the first half of the picture as he is the first character we meet in the film along with Tom, and though his role slides to the side as the picture goes on his performance is extraordinary in adding to the strife of those suffering in the story.

As mention before, the story shares ideals of socialism in that people should care for other people and live in a manner that allows all to live comfortably by sharing. Not to say the picture is an advertisement for socialism, rather a manifestation of how people could live in harmony if they cared for one another. Overall the tale is about strife and the power of people attempting to overcome, but the idea that capitalism is overbearingly greedy cannot be overlooked as a major theme in the plot.

This idea of sharing socialistic ideals, or perhaps ideas of communism, was an unusual move by any director or any studio, let alone 20th Century-Fox and John Ford. Hollywood was founded and was still ran by people that worked hard from near nothing in their pockets to founding a wildly successful industry. Movie moguls and its filmmakers were self-made men that shared conservative ideals in an America that usually quietly shunned the teachings of communism as seen rising in the east. With the rise of fascism, and the breakout of war in Europe America began to soften its views on communism as the nation sympathized with the Soviet Union attempting to fend off the Nazi armies of Germany. This film manifests just how American were beginning to make that emotional connection with fighting against the powerful by the will of the people which, as seen here, was happening within their own backyards during the Great Depression.

As war waged abroad American movies usually played minimally if at all in overseas markets, many time being outright banned. In this case The Soviet Union, America’s allies during World War II followed by being immediate enemies following, would allow showings of the film in their country in 1948 as the film portrayed the troubles of people under capitalism. However the film was shortly thereafter pulled from Soviet screens as it was realized that in America even the poorest of people could still afforded a car.

The Grapes of Wrath was very well received by both audiences and critics. Its production value and acting were highly praised as the picture became one of the most critically acclaimed films of 1940. The feature would be up of seven Academy Awards, including best picture, taking home the two for John Ford and Jane Darwell. Other award circles would shower the film with high regards as well, including honors for best picture from both The National Board of Review and the New York Film Circle. History would mark how significant this feature was to the history of American cinema as The American Film Institute would name it to their list of top 100 films in American cinema history both in 1998 (at #21) and 2007 (at #23) as well as naming to list of top 100 most inspirational pictures of all time (at #7), decades after it was released. The film also is preserved in the National Film Registry being named to its first class of most significant films in American cinema in 1989.

Despite the film version differed from the John Steinbeck novel  at it altered, cleaned up, reshuffling the plot points to create a happier, more inspirational ending, both the book and this picture stand as significant pieces of American history. The Grapes of Wrath has come to be a time capsule of America in the Dust Bowl during it most difficult economic hardship of the 20th century. John Ford’s picture is still one of the highest praised pictures ever made and stands as wonderful cinematic art.

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