Friday, December 27, 2019

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

USA, 129 minutes
Director: John Ford
Writers: Nunnally Johnson, John Steinbeck
Photography: Gregg Toland
Music: Alfred Newman
Editor: Robert L. Simpson
Cast: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Charley Grapewin, Zeffie Tilbury, Dorris Bowdon, Eddie Quillan, Russell Simpson, O.Z. Whitehead, John Qualen, Ward Bond

The Grapes of Wrath was remarkably successful as both a novel and then a movie, one of those instant outsize media successes we like to produce in this country when we can. John Steinbeck's novel was published in 1939 and quickly became emblematic of the Dust Bowl environmental disaster of the Great Depression, accompanied by the arrival of big agribusiness capitalism and a massive migration West. It's a kind of small-bore version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, intersecting history right in the moment. It was banned and burned and yapped about on rightwing talk radio, but it also won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer, and it was the work most often mentioned when Steinbeck won his Nobel in 1962. Almost immediately upon publication Darryl F. Zanuck paid a princely sum for the movie rights and then this John Ford version came out the following year, ultimately winning Oscars for director Ford and for Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, with five more nominations to spark the evening, including Best Picture. It all happened in just a couple of years, during the high hysterical times as the Depression moderated and a world war loomed, 1939 to 1942, Hollywood's most characteristic years.

The book and movie now appear regularly on long-faced lists of important great things, and the truth is they both are great, or capable of it, though arguably dogged by some slight odor of sanctimony. I was surprised to find a contemporary Time review, by Whittaker Chambers of all people (via Wikipedia), which declared the movie "possibly the best picture ever made from a so-so book"—surprised because if anything I see it the other way. The movie version of The Grapes of Wrath, as impressive as it is, is finally merely another case of a movie not being as good as the book. If it's only going to be one, read the book. This is for specific reasons, notably the treatment of the ending. Yet even falling short of this extraordinary novel can still mean the movie is pretty good and deserves its accolades too.

Cinematographer Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane, The Best Years of Our Lives), for one thing, makes this as compelling to look at as any European art film 10 or 15 years later, and a stark forward-looking road movie. Toland was a master of black and white imagery in motion and he was at the top of his form in The Grapes of Wrath. The pace of this movie is slow (though overall ridiculously rushed compared to the novel) and Toland has a hundred artful ways to make it interesting with shadow, light, and perspective. I was reminded of scenes from The Seventh Seal and from La Strada—almost certainly those cinematographers (Gunnar Fischer, Otello Martelli, and Carlo Carlini) had studied the work of Toland in places like The Grapes of Wrath and elsewhere.

For all its restraint and quiet, the movie seemed intended to capitalize on the issues and controversy raised by the novel, and with Zanuck and a lot of money onboard it inevitably also feels propelled by Hollywood's glamour PR machine, hence the seven Oscar nominations and two wins. There's even a point to note here about switching narrative elements around, and omitting some altogether, to make the story's arc move in a more upbeat direction. I don't take it as a cheat myself—Steinbeck's ending is equally as optimistic in its way, and the fighting human spirit under duress is the main point in both, and well made in both.

The ensemble cast is not entirely differentiated, perhaps by design. After Darwell, Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, and John Carradine as the former preacher man Jim Casy, the rest are more like the teeming mass of humanity itself. The early scenes with Grandpa (Charley Grapewin) veer a little too close to director Ford's Tobacco Road Southern-dipped slapstick for my taste. Grandma (Zeffie Tilbury) and the married couple Rosasharn (Dorris Bowdon) and Connie (Eddie Quillan) barely register, which is unfortunate because theirs are some of the best stories in the novel. On the other hand, doing them justice as well as everything else here could well have made the movie 90 minutes longer, and it's already over two hours.

So the story is stripped to its bones and rushed by comparison, and the lesson once again, Whittaker Chambers notwithstanding, is that as usual you're better off reading the literary property than seeing the movie if you can only do one. Also, I'm no particular acolyte of John Ford so others can speak better than me to the place of this movie in his catalog, but it feels slightly out of step with his most characteristic work. It's more than merely the lack of heroic Monument Valley scenery and pilgrims singing "Shall We Gather at the River." It feels, somehow, specifically engineered for success. Still, The Grapes of Wrath is beloved, appreciated, and ranked high for reasons easily seen. Everybody should see it once. After that you're on your own.


  1. "odor of sanctimony": like Springsteen's Tom Joad '90s?

  2. The sanctimony is the only thing Springsteen caught on that project, or that's the only thing I could ever hear.