John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) spends two hours rubbing our noses in poverty and humiliation, yet somehow sends us off with hope-filled hearts.
It’s about economic exploitation and the death of the agrarian way of life, but its lingering emotion is not anger or dismay. Rather, the film is filled with pride in the resiliency of the America character.
John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel about the Joads – a family of dispossessed Oklahoma farmers trekking to California in search of work and a new beginning – is an incendiary read.
Though a best seller, Grapes was pilloried in some quarters – even banned – for its depiction of the cruel treatment of the “Okies” by law enforcement and California’s agricultural interests.
The issue wasn’t so much whether the depiction was true (Steinbeck based the novel on his own journalistic inquiries into the lives of migrant workers); its sin appears to have been bringing up the issue in the first place. For this the book was condemned by many as “red” propaganda that threatened the natural order of things.
Producer Darryl F. Zanuck purchased the movie rights within a month of the book’s publication in 1938. But the 20th Century Fox chief was torn over his acquisition.
Some Hollywood heavy hitters advised him to never make the movie, which was sure to be controversial.
The California Chamber of Commerce and the Agricultural Council of California threatened a boycott of all Fox films if Grapes was made and released.
Though quietly terrified, Zanuck believed Grapes could be a compelling movie – provided the right approach was taken. He ordered veteran screenwriter Nunnally Johnson to adapt the novel and assigned John Ford to direct.
Johnson, a Georgia conservative, later said he thought the book’s political ideas were less interesting than the story of the Joads. And so his script was less about polemics than the poetry of a family on the move.
Zanuck insisted that the film end differently than the book. Certainly there was never any way a movie in 1940 could depict the novel’s final, haunting scene: Rosasharn Joad, her baby dead, offers her milk-filled breast to a hobo dying of starvation.
What was needed, Zanuck argued, was an optimistic ending.
Johnson complied by creating two of the most memorable speeches in American film.
In one, the fugitive Tom Joad (Henry Fonda in his greatest performance) voices his conviction that only through collective effort can the common man flourish:
“A fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but only a piece of a big soul – the one big soul that belongs to everybody...”
Tom has learned a harsh reality about modern America: There’s no new frontier for a man to explore. The best land has been gobbled up by big landowners and corporate interests. The rugged individuals who once owned and worked the land are now hobos and outlaws.
“Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there...And when our people eat the stuff they raise and live in the houses they build, why I’ll be there, too.”
His mother, Ma Joad (Jane Darwell, who won an Oscar for her performance) has her own epiphany:
“Rich fellas come up an’ they die. An’ their kids ain’t no good, an’ they die out. But we keep a-comin’. We’re the people that live. Can’t nobody wipe us out. Can’t nobody lick us.
“We’ll go on forever.”
At the time some fans of the novel complained that the movie went too easy on the book’s economic villains, that it watered down the novel’s radicalism.
But as Peter Stowell pointed out in his biography of Ford, “Many of Steinbeck’s attacks make the book seem dated today, while the film’s more universal approach has helped it become a classic.”
Even Steinbeck agreed. He loved the movie.
Ford – who specialized in Westerns and historic dramas and almost never made contemporary films dealing with social issues – embraced the project, saying it reminded him of own Irish roots (famine and dislocation) and his boyhood on a farm in Maine.
“I had complete sympathy with these people,” he said of the Joads.
He was particularly complimentary of the cinematography by Gregg Toland, who the next year would shoot Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Toland employed a black-and-white documentary style patterned on the Dust Bowl photography sponsored by the Works Progress Administration.
Ford marveled: “Absolutely nothing but nothing to photograph, not one beautiful thing in there – just sheer good photography.”
Some critics, in fact, have noted that while the screenplay minimizes the book’s radicalism, Toland reinforces it with subversive and disturbing images. There’s the transient camp populated by zombie-ish men and women beaten down by life, and the landowners’ special “guards,” who are pictured as fascist thugs.
Ford knew that Zanuck was nervous about the movie and carefully shot it so that the footage could be edited only one way, thus minimizing tinkering by studio suits.
The resulting film, in the words of critic Anderw Sarris, “singlehandedly transformed Ford from a storyteller of the screen to America’s cinematic poet laureate.”
Other films in the series “John Ford: Not a Cowboy In Sight”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- March 5: Wee Willie Winkie (1937) Not rated
- March 12: Mogambo (1953) Not rated
- March 19: The Wings of Eagles (1957) Not rated
- March 26: Donovan’s Reef (1963) Not rated
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- March 3: The Grapes of Wrath (1940) Not rated
- March 10: How Green Was My Valley (1941) Not rated
- March 17: They Were Expendable (1945) Not rated
- March 24: The Quiet Man (1952) Not rated
- March 31: Mister Roberts (1955) Not rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.