Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

grapes
You don’t get more of a Depression-era film than director John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Based on John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name, the story follows the displaced Joad family from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma to the sunny orchards of California.  Darryl Zanuck took a chance when he bought the film rights for 20th Century Fox, but in the end it paid off with seven Oscar nominations—two of which earned Oscars for Best Director John Ford and Best Supporting Actress Jane Darwell.  While it isn’t surprising that the film was nominated for Best Picture; it is a tad shocking that renowned cinematographer Gregg Toland’s striking images were overlooked by the Academy. You see, the story is gripping and the acting is mesmerizing, but the visuals are what make this film a treasure. 

grapes1When I read Steinbeck’s 600+ page novel in college I found myself admiring preacher Casy (John Carradine) and rooting for poor Rose-of-Sharon (Dorris Bowden).  I also didn’t really like Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) and I could have done without the intercalary chapters. Thankfully, the intercalary sections were left out of the film and what remains is a story that rips your heart out, chops it up, and then feeds it to the pigs.  Here you have a poor Oklahoma family thrown off the land their family has worked for generations by both mechanization and the banks.  No one seems to care that they have nothing but an old rickety truck loaded to the brim with a few pieces of furniture and articles of clothing.  They search out a new life in California, only to find that they are not needed or wanted.  Along the way they meet mostly scorn and mistreatment (mostly by land owners and law enforcement), but they do meet a few compassionate people.  The most memorable being the diner waitress who sells two peppermint sticks to the children for a penny, when they really cost a dime. 

While red-baiting was taking a coffee break in 1940 Americafonda, it was still risky to include Steinbeck’s rather socialistic themes. In one memorable scene Tom asks, “What is these 'Reds' anyway? Every time ya turn around, somebody callin' somebody else a Red. What is these 'Reds' anyway?” Steinbeck, and even Ford to a degree, are making the point that anyone who asks to be treated like a human being and be paid a fair wage is viewed as a “red” agitator. 

Henry Fonda does a good job of conveying Tom Joad’s underlying seething rage. Rewarded with a Best Actor nomination by the Academy, Fonda plays the embittered Tom as a man who could (and often does) explode at any moment. You can see the resentment Tom feels in the way Fonda moves, looks, and delivers his lines. 

jane-darwell-the-grapes-of-wrathIn addition to Fonda’s fine acting, Jane Darwell delivers the performance of her life as Ma Joad.  It is the simple and quiet way that she goes about building her character into the backbone of the Joad family that I think most people admire. It would have been easy to play up the stereotypical hysterical hillbilly matriarch that some actresses went for, but Darwell is calm, resigned, and resilient in her role. 

The other standout performance is John Carradine’s (one of Ford’s favorite character actors) as Casy.  He adds an almost spiritual element to the film—and not because his character is a fallen casypreacher, either. He just seems to have a very reverent screen presence, and he delivers his lines in a prayer-like fashion.  Casy was my favorite character in the book, and while he doesn’t get as much screen time as one might like, I think Carradine uses what time he gets to make his Casy one of the most memorable things about the film.

While Carradine’s Casy is memorable, it is Gregg Toland’s cinematography that steals the entire production. Employing  the purity of black and white film, Toland used wide-angle lenses to capture the parched desolation of the Oklahoma plains and the deserted isolation of the desert.  How small is man compared to such images? When dealing with capturing the Henry Fonda (center) in John Ford's THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940). Courtesy Photofest. Playing 11/26-12/2human element, Toland used deep focus so savagely that you feel uncomfortable looking at the ragged and malnourished people he sets his sights on.  He also uses shadows in a very clever way to literally illustrate when someone has something hanging over their head or breathing down their neck.  His images are stark, realistic, and uncomfortable—just what the film and the book were trying to convey about the plight of the Joads and thousands others like them. 

Now, some might be disappointed that I haven’t discussed the biblical references in the film. It’s there—Casy’s murder is like the crucifixion of Christ and the whole trip is like Exodus—but I find this element severally lacking from that of the book (much was cut), so I don’t find it to be that important.  What I think makes The Grapes of Wrath an enduring picture is the stunning photography and the nuanced presentation of one of the best examples of Americana during the Great Depression.

12 comments:

  1. Nice write-up. Awfully good film and I agree that Toland's cinematography is magnificent. Another heart-breaking moment is John Qualan squatting while he runs the dirt through his fingers. "...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!"

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    1. That is a moving moment in the film, when Qualan picks up that dirt. I wonder how many people said something very similar when they were being pushed off their land? Makes you think.

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  2. It's "a story that rips your heart out, chops it up, and then feeds it to the pigs." That's a excellent description of the film adaptation of GRAPES OF WRATH. I think it's one of the most honest, realistic social dramas to come out of Hollywood during the 1930s-1950s. As you highlighted, the cast is excellent (though I felt that only Jane Darwell really captured the way these folks talked). Toland's work is indeed visually stunning, making the landscape an important character in the film. The photo you included of Jane Darwell is just haunting, with the shadow falling across her like a bar across a door, keeping her from a brighter life. Well done, Kim.

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    1. Good point about Darwell capturing how an Okie spoke. As I said, Toland is just masterful with the use of shadows.

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  3. Wonderful review about the film, The Grapes of Wrath, which is a very realistic film about the suffering that so many families experienced during the Great Depression. The performances are unforgettable. Especially John Carradine, I do not think he has ever given a bad performance.

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    1. Thanks, Dawn. I agree that Carradine always seems to shine in whatever role he plays.

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  4. Very good and interesting personal take on this film, Kim. It is so hard to create a movie out of a giant book like Grapes of Wrath, but they did a good job. I personally like the parts of the book that you don't care for, but that's just individual taste. Besides, there is no way to fit that kind of writing into a basically visual medium. I agree with you completely about the cinematography -- it was like one of the characters in the film. If I had to pick one, Jane Darwell is my favorite character. As you said "It is the simple and quiet way that she goes about building her character..." Of all the heart-rending scenes, one that has always stayed with me is Ma Joad packing to leave her home. She finds a pair of earrings that she wore in her youth and likely looked lovely in -- she holds the earrings up to her ears and looks in a mirror, seeing that her youth is gone and the earrings only serve to point up that cruel fact. I still cry when I see it. Excellent analysis, Kim.

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    1. Becky, Ma Joad is an endearing character. She is moving in all of her scenes.

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  5. Kim, this is an excellent profile of an epic work. I was delighted to see your admiration for the masterful cinematography of Gregg Toland. Toland was nominated for "The Long Voyage Home" the same year as "Grapes of Wrath" but that film received no awards. He did win the previous year for "Wuthering Heights."

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    1. Wuthering Heights is where Toland really began his ascent to the top of the cinematography ladder. The things he did to light Merle Oberon were marvelous.

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  6. Great post, Kim. Grapes is one of my favorite films and has a place on my shelf at home. It is not only a historical document of the depression, but a political statement of how we failed to protect the heartland of America in a time of crisis. People like the Joads built our country and then lost everything to what amounted to big business. It was a shame they had to travel all the way to CA to find a government run camp. If you think about it, that camp was actually run as a type of communism!

    I am glad it is visually such a powerful film, or I would write to my congressmen every time I see it! I would rather focus on the incredibly touching performances by the entire cast. No Bit Actors here!

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    1. Allen, I know you are all about the performance. Everyone does a really superb job of portraying their character's angst and plight. Thanks for commenting.

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