Like any number of film lovers in the making, I delighted in riling my father with our pronounced differences in taste. The conflict has to be universal, familiar in one way or another to every father/son. My father primarily valued the pictures of his time, particularly the films of the 1940s – 1960s, while I clung to the movies of, well, not really my time, but of the 1970s, especially the collaborations of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, the team that led to my initial rudimentary understanding of what I would eventually learn to be called the auteur theory. I cringe now at the powerhouses I dismissed out of rebellious ignorance to my father. Bogart. Capra. Curtiz. Huston. Cagney. Hepburn/Tracy. The list goes on, and it certainly included John Ford’s adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which I, in the parlance of a feisty, insecure nine-year-old, dismissed as dated message-movie drivel. I told my father that Ford’s picture was an embarrassing sanitation of a national catastrophe. He, not so politely, retorted with the obvious: that I was speaking from the point of view of someone blissfully unaware of the pain that informed the film at every turn.
Returning to Grapes of Wrath last night, my first time seeing it since whenever I saw it with my father, I thought of his remarks, which I only half-remember at best by now. That conversation has been reshaped and rewritten by my own interior perceptions of myself and my relationship with my father, in order to fit into my own myth of my past. And this is exactly how Ford’s picture works: as a direct, mythical response to a nearly contemporary national panic.
Before praising Grapes of Wrath, it might be instructive to address the film’s most obvious, most discussed issue, which is truthful. Steinbeck, never one to shy away from parable and raw metaphor, wrote a poetic novel that protested the government propaganda that demonized and marginalized the union out of indifference and greed (what do they say about the more things change the more they…ah, you know). Steinbeck’s novel follows an Oklahoma family’s trek to California following their ousting from their farm in the wake of the Depression in the early 1930s. The family, called the Joads, slowly succumbed to the pressures of the time, namely poverty and police/government corruption and prejudice. Steinbeck’s novel was an outraged response to “Red” paranoia as well as a naked plea on behalf of union organization. The movie, hardly divorced from the era of the novel (it was released in 1940), predictably dulled these elements; in the film, the Joads end on an uncertain yet hopeful note that implicitly soothes us. Über-producer Darryl Zanuck understandably saw in Steinbeck’s novel a message movie (read: Oscar candidate) as well as a ready-made blockbuster. But the death of an American everyman family at the hands of the national government is potentially messy, so the project softened the more challenging elements of the source material in a fashion still prevalent in many of our supposedly true-story awards winners today.
John Ford’s film of The Grapes of Wrath also shares weaknesses with his other films. The supporting members of the Joad family, particularly the elder characters, are broadly drawn even for this time in American film. That pronounced good-ol’-boy chumminess, that grab-ass, self-consciously “Americana” humor that can irritate in Ford’s films is certainly accounted for in The Grapes of Wrath‘s weaker passages. A number of the film’s most famous scenes, most notably Tom Joad’s (Henry Fonda) “I’ll be there” farewell to Ma Joad (Jane Darwell), are among the weakest: Moving, yes, but these moments are also unavoidably obvious pleadings that betray the reality of a migrant family, while also compromising the lyrical plainness of the source material. The film’s score is too overt, smothering certain moments that would’ve been more haunting in silence.
These considerations can lead to fashionably contemporary yet half-ass resentments of the sort that I indulged as a child. But Ford’s film is still a major achievement, and it firmly deserves its place in the American film canon. The pain that drove the Steinbeck novel remains. Ford, working with the legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland, fashioned a rich, expressionist texture (characteristic of a number of other wonderful Ford films, and also reminiscent of Lean’s adaptations of Dickens) that works as an appropriate visual substitute for Steinbeck’s prose. The opening of Tom Joad walking through a crossroads in silence is mysterious, painful, evocative. A secondary character’s recounting of the loss of his own farm is heartbreaking and revealing in its directness: “(grabbing the ground)...we were all born on it. And some of us was killed on it! ...and some of us died on it. That’s what make it our’n, bein’ born on it,...and workin’ on it,...and and dying’ on it! And not no piece of paper with the writin’ on it!”
There are a dozen scenes as powerful as the above citations, such as the famous moment when the restaurant owner and the waitress take pity on Pa Joad, lying to him about the prices of the food. The Joad clan never fits the conventional idea of a rounded character, they are all (even the killer Tom) saintly and wronged and mostly caring. But the film is clearly meant, like the novel, as symbol, with the Joads as representations of the casualties of the Depression while most of the cops and authorities, who could be out of a Hitchcock film, are meant as symptoms of the corruption, exploitation, and cruelty. The Joads and the heartless authorities are the two polar extremes of Depression-era America, with the pit stops along the way (the restaurant, the government-assisted camp, the hideout of the rebellious workers) meant as the various degrees between.
The Grapes of Wrath ultimately works so well because Ford is a practical, confident, masterful filmmaker. Despite lapses in tone that date the film, he generally stages his scenes in a crisp, matter-of-fact manner that contrasts with Toland’s sensual, storybook lighting. Contemporary American films, particularly those set in the poverty-stricken period South, could learn from Ford’s Depression-ravaged America, which is one of the most vivid and convincing to be found in any feature film (the obvious sound stages only enhance the primal terror of what was essentially a real world apocalypse). The performances are uneven except for the two that really matter. Fonda and Darwell are too-often furnished with blunt, editorializing proclamations, but their body language is disturbingly, unforgettably precise (watch Tom as he strolls the defensive stroll of the permanently on the lam ex-con, or Ma as she sleeps in her cramped on-the-fly “home”) and their verbal deliveries, particularly Fonda’s, are just right.
Too many films these days trivialize poverty as an ironically, tastelessly over-produced pageant to earn kudos. The Grapes of Wrath is flawed, but it captures that shiver of panic that grips anyone for whom the money for the next meal is unknown. The film remains a vital document of the perversion and torment of the fantasy most commonly known as the American Dream.