The Great Depression was a shockingly difficult time for millions across the globe, but few were hit as hard as the farmers of Middle America, where economic hardship was cruelly compounded by severe drought and massively damaging dust storms. In 1939, author John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath, tracking the crippling obstacles and travails of a family kicked off their land in Oklahoma and hoping to find security, if not prosperity, in California. With its unflinching look at the poverty and hardship of agricultural workers and the callous and brutal tactics used by employers and law enforcement, the novel sparked instant controversy and was the subject of book burnings and bans — but it was also a best-seller. Hollywood quickly took up the book, with director John Ford helming a film adaptation released in 1940. This is the first Ford film we are discussing on this blog, but it won’t be the last — indeed, his 1956 film The Searchers sits at #7 on the Sight & Sound list. Ford’s Grapes of Wrath does stray some from the stark grimness and overtly leftist politics of Steinbeck’s novel, but it does compellingly depict a time of immense hardship and the befuddled mind-state of a family witnessing their world fall apart. It also happens to be one of the most gorgeously shot films ever to come out of Hollywood, a result of Ford using talented cinematographer Gregg Toland, who experimented here with a number of techniques he would use to even greater effect in Citizen Kane the following year. (129 min.)
J. – Our apologies from the two of us here at Fan With a Movie Yammer for the complete dearth of posts lately, but we at least have a good, great, happy reason: We just got married. So as you can imagine, things have been busy (and to be honest, it hasn’t helped that we’ve also finally discovered Breaking Bad). But now we’re ready to tackle the Sight & Sound list once more, so I’ll let my wife kick things off…
S. – The cinematography in The Grapes of Wrath grabs you right away. While the essence of the story revolves around hardship and struggle the movie itself is extraordinarily beautiful, whether it be revealing the Dust Bowl farmlands of Oklahoma or the jumble of humanity and belongings strapped aboard a rickety truck. This quality makes it continuously pleasurable to watch, even though the subject matter is frequently dispiriting. Particularly impressive is the low-light work, the action frequently occurs after dark in environments with minimal lighting. An early scene where Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) learns the details of how his family were forced from their farm and the disintegration of the neighbourhood during his time away in jail, is lit with a single candle. A gutsy move that adds to the austere atmosphere. Another powerful scene involves former-preacher Casey (John Carradine) attempting to explain the unethical scheme of the employers where Tom’s family had found some temporary work. He seems to take on an ethereal glow amongst the disgruntled men in the dingy tent at their covert gathering.
J. – The film really does grab you right away with its impressive camerawork, setting the stage with a stark crossroads as Fonda’s newly released jailbird walks all alone. You know right away that this is not a story that is traveling to happy places. The candlelit scene you spoke of drives that home quite nicely, if a bit too forcefully. I want to first gives some props to actor John Qualen, whose character haunts the former homes of sharecropper families after having lost his own to the bank. Qualen has come up a lot in recent list films, playing the key role of a mousy but menacing murderer in His Girl Friday and a member of the anti-Nazi underground in Casablanca. In The Grapes of Wrath, Qualen’s role lasts all of perhaps five minutes but its one of the most important in the film, essentially setting the entire plot in motion and giving all of the exposition on what has befallen the small farmers of Oklahoma. It’s an unenviable role, and he nails it with a mix of morose defeat and sheer madness. But his back story is also grossly heavy handed, which is a problem that is going to come up again and again in this film. Actors like Fonda, Carradine, and Qualen are able to get past that issue, breathing life and subtlety into the starkly unsubtle material, but much of the rest of the cast proves to be less capable.
S. – The performances are indeed a mixed bag. At its most affecting The Grapes of Wrath asks you to consider how far will you be pushed by circumstances outside your control before you are either provoked into sabotaging your future or else give up hope entirely. These personal battles are silently conveyed in the demeanour of the actors you have mentioned and also in the performance of Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, who displays an unshakable survival instinct in the face of continual calamity. Unfortunately the other family members stray toward the melodramatic in their roles, with some scenes verging on a parody of backward farm folk fallen on tough times. Given that the circumstances creating the setting for the story were real, this seems in particularly poor taste. Perhaps the reasoning is that a movie has to provide some light-hearted entertainment, but to me it had the effect of undermining the gravity of the situation. The bleak circumstances may not be entertaining in themselves but watching the protagonists strive to improve their lot and the way they absorb and respond to the challenges that restrict them time and again draws you into their plight and is far more valuable than a few cheap laughs at the simple folk.
J. – I definitely agree with that assessment, S., but only to a point. This is a mainstream Hollywood movie, after all, and John Ford is decidedly not a pinko radical, nor was producer Darryl F. Zanuck. So it’s perhaps not surprising that conservative filmmakers used to churning out feel good pictures from America’s dream mill would do what they could to lighten things where they could (for instance, the film does not go to the dark depths that the book takes Tom Joad’s sister, Rosasharn). But I think there’s something more systemic in place here that mucks up the performances. We’ve yammered in the past about the heightened acting and dialogue of films of the 1930s. It’s one of the things I love best about movies of that period, as it can create a perfect unreality that is well suited to telling wonderful stories. But The Grapes of Wrath is not that kind of story. This is a movie about real hardship, suffered by real people — and at the time the film was made this was not ancient history, it was five years ago. So those actors that grip onto the reaching-the-back-of-the-theater acting styles that characterized the previous decade just grate against the harsh reality of the plot and the stark chiaroscuro of Toland’s compositions.
The more grounded performers (like Fonda and the excellent Jane Darwell) and those tackling more eccentric roles (like Carradine and Qualen) come off best, and really are what kept me emotionally connected to the story. And these performances are part of what makes me wonder if The Grapes of Wrath presages a sea change in American film, because — flawed as the movie may be — it’s probably the first Hollywood film we have seen so far to tackle social and interpersonal relationships this deeply, and darkly. This kind of material (judging from the Sight & Sound list) was previously the exclusive terrain of European and Japanese cinema.
S. – I am impressed that this film was tackled at a time when the Dust Bowl tragedy was still a vivid part of people’s memories, especially because the people behind it were not using it as a vehicle for a particular political purpose. Also the decision to take on a narrative that is far grittier than the enjoyable, but light-weight, features popular at the time is a welcome shift out of the Hollywood comfort zone. But delving into human tragedy comes with responsibilities, it is a short step into exploitation when the primary motive is entertainment. A few missteps may be inevitable when traversing new territory but, as you mention, J., many of the European and Japanese films of the day navigate contentious social issues, and those films on the Sight and Sound list seem to balance realism and entertainment value with greater finesse. But I will be interested to see if we are about to experience a greater depth of subject matter coming out of the USA.
J. – I certainly know we’ll be seeing a bit more of that in our next couple of films, if only because the marvelous Citizen Kane is one of next items on our plate (now, there’s a film with enough layers to make an onion cry). But I definitely agree that the European and Japanese films we have already yammered about found a stronger balance between (sometimes grim) realism and cinematic entertainment. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, for example, is slow and tragic while also featuring high contrast, deep focus, expertly staged cinematography, but it is much, much more appealing and engaging than The Grapes of Wrath. I think that is in part because The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t seem to know what sort of movie it wants to be. You mentioned above how the gravity of the Okies’ situation seemed to be undermined by the film itself, and I agree with that. Despite what actually happens in the film, the movie seems to be determined to frame itself as a story of hard working, salt of the earth types striving against the obstacles of the world, rather than a story of a corrupt, heartless system crushing the little guy without mercy. But the latter is what is actually happening on screen (and, as I understand it, in Steinbeck’s novel, which I have not yet read [It’s on the shelf, I’ll get there!!]). That disconnect between plot and tone often makes the film feel disjointed and manipulative, rather than honest and insightful. But that makes it all the more remarkable that these handful of performances — particularly Fonda’s and Carradines — are able to stand out so brilliantly.
S. – There is a schmaltzy undercurrent to the film that is at odds with the tone of the book. You are left believing that somehow everything will turn out okay because this group of people have good hearts and care about each other when the reality was that good people were mown down by these circumstances. I’ll admit that’s not quite as heart-warming, but it is a scenario worthy of exploration and one that could be great given the talent on hand. Even with the “everything is going to turn out all right if we just stick together” vibe, Fonda brings some grit that gives traction to the bad road the Joad family find themselves on. The inevitability that a man who has already experienced life on the wrong side of the law won’t receive any favours in hard times is written all over his face. Paired up with Carradine’s angst-ridden preacher these two performances were also highlights for me.
J. – Fonda’s Tom Joad is brilliant, particularly the way his lank, lazy demeanor covers over the bitter rage ratcheting up inside him. It’s a quiet, folksy performance that never dips into full hick (like, sadly, much of the rest of the Joads do) and never really fully explodes, even when Tom kills a man in a sudden fury — but there is a fire and purpose in Fonda’s eyes that somehow even lets him sell that famous final soliluoqy of Tom’s, a speech that by all rights should sound mawkish and ham-fisted in the extreme.
But, for me, the performance of the film is that of Carradine, whose preacher-turned-labor leader is wonderfully, delightfully weird. I wouldn’t say that Casey is angst-ridden, so much as broken, but in a way that allows him to see through lies he once relied on to find a new sense of purpose. It’s a strange choice on Carradine’s part to play Casey’s loss of faith in God almost the way that you would imagine Goofy (as in, the cartoon dog) would approach the role, but it works. And when he re-emerges as the leader of the strikers in the second half of the film (in that excellent scene in the tent you mentioned above) you finally understand how this man once had the fire and charisma to be a preacher. The vacant emptiness is filled up with divine purpose — albeit of a decidedly more socialist bent. It’s a marvelously strange performance, and Carradine’s off-kilter acting choices are the closest in my mind to finding a measure of union with the unorthodox and beautiful cinematography — dark, light, askew, and deep all at once.
S. – Above all it is the cinematography that marks The Grapes of Wrath as a worthy list movie for me. Toland displayed a masterful use of light to infuse intensity into both the sweeping landscape work and the action scenes. The Dust Bowl remains of the Oklahoma farms was devastating, but exquisitely so. The promised land of California was every bit as bountiful as a deprived family could dream of. At times the narrative was awkward and clumsy but my attention never wandered from the screen because I loved what I was seeing. The fierce direction of Ford demanded that many of the scenes be performed in a single take, making it even more remarkable that the vision is wonderful throughout and able to capture a mood more consistently than some of the players on screen. I am very excited that there is more of Toland’s vision in store for us shortly.