Grapes of Wrath, The (1940)
Release Date: March 15th, 1940 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: John Ford Actors: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Charley Grapewin, Dorris Bowdon, Russell Simpson, O.Z. Whitehead, John Qualen, Eddie Quillan, Zeffie Tilbury, Frank Sully
eturning from a four-year stint at the penitentiary for homicide, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) receives a reluctant lift from an Oklahoma City Transport Company driver to the outskirts of his father’s sharecrop farm. Tom’s continued, on-foot journey home puts him in the path of a former preacher, Jim Casy (John Carradine), who accompanies him to the Joad residence, which turns out to have been abandoned for a long time. Half-crazy squatter Muley (John Qualey) informs them that the Caterpillar tractors and bulldozers came through the territory, literally crushing the homes in their paths to throw out the farmers whose output couldn’t compete against dwindling resources and mechanized farming equipment. The Joads supposedly headed to Uncle John’s place before starting off to California for a new life.
With no one to blame or shoot – the superintendents, the land and cattle companies, and the bank are all just following orders – the Joads have no choice but to head West. Tom catches up to his family, held together by resilient Ma (Jane Darwell), and consisting of Pa (Russell Simpson), Grandpa (Charley Grapewin), Grandma (Zeffie Tilbury), daughter Rosasharn (Dorris Bowden) and her husband Connie (Eddie Quillan), and several other extended family members and friends. Piling atop a creaky jalopy, the weary but resolute travelers proceed to the Oklahoma City limits and across Route 66. Their hardships have only just begun, however, as death, foreboding warnings, shattered dreams, and all sorts of societal ugliness awaits.
Based on the novel by John Steinbeck, “The Grapes of Wrath” is a somber, serious, moving tale of poverty, tragedy, and injustice. It’s also required viewing (and/or reading) in plenty of schools, not only for its value as a visualized historical account of a Great Depression affliction, but also for its message of perseverance, compassion, humanity, and hope (the book won a Pulitzer, while the film took the Best Director Oscar for John Ford). The Joads’ plight, summing up many groups’ comparable struggles, appears as an alien, misery-seeking pursuit of unlikely happiness to the outsiders who have dependable means for a livelihood. The migrants are regularly looked down upon as beggars and bums and something less than human. In a setting of extreme scantiness, ideas of optimism, common decency, and mercy tend to deteriorate into prejudice, exploitation, and corruption. At a certain point, even genuine kindness must be first approached with distrust.
With little action, no special effects, and plenty of straightforward dramatic suffering, “The Grapes of Wrath” is a tough watch for anyone accustomed to dynamical storytelling full of small wins or triumphant victories to level out the anguish. Even the brief moments of uncommon generosity are riddled with an unavoidable ominousness, as if the temporary contentment of the settlers simply can’t be tolerated. Here, in rare form, the government serves as a transient savior of the people. In the end, though bolstered by Fonda’s rousing speech of rebellion and justice and support for the oppressed, the film becomes an obvious proponent of endurance and meaningfulness but not an exercise in consistently entertaining, cinematic wonder. Still, there’s something haunting about the piece, no matter how commonplace the design of woe befalling wretches has now become. And, as hard as it may be to believe, it’s far more heartening than the source material.
– Mike Massie