May 09, 2007
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
During most of the decade of the 30s, the United States lived under the shroud of the Great Depression, a decade of unemployment and high poverty that would changed the face of the country forever. While the entire country suffered the effects of the Depression, the inhabitants of the prairie lands had to face an extra difficulty: the Dust Bowl. The Dust Bowl was a terrible ecological disaster that destroyed many farms in the area of the Great Plains, and forced people to migrate looking for better working conditions. The difficulties and social problems that those migrants had to endure in this sad chapter of history became the inspiration for John Steinbeck's novel, "The Grapes of Wrath", a book that quickly became a classic due to its powerful depiction of the era. Soon after it's release, plans for a film adaptation began to be made, and the man who would bring the novel to the screen would be none other than John Ford.
In "The Grapes of Wrath", Henry Fonda plays Tom Joad, a young man recently paroled from prison who is traveling to his family home in Oklahoma. When he arrives, he discovers that the farm is deserted and the only person he can find is Jim Casy (John Carradine), the former preacher of his community. Together they decide to go to the house of Tom's uncle John (Frank Darien) looking for the Joads, and it's there where they find them packing their belongings as they get ready to move. The Joads explain Tom that the bank has foreclosed their farm, and that they are moving to California looking for work and a better life. While he is not supposed to leave the state by the conditions of his parole, Tom decides to join his family and convinces Jim to go with them in the long and arduous trip to California. However, things won't be as easy as they thought they would.
Adapted to the screen by Nunnally Johnson, "The Grapes of Wrath" takes on the spirit of John Steinbeck's novel and delivers a harsh, crude and very realistic portrayal of poverty during the Dust Bowl. Despite not being an exactly faithful adaptation of the novel (changes were done due to censorship), the movie remains true to that powerful and very human essence that the novel had, and it could be said that Johnson distilled the themes of the novel and made an unabashed story free of any political compromises. While this kind of stories often suffer literary embellishments, "The Grapes of Wrath" avoids stereotypes and shows humanity as it is, with all their vices and virtues. It is the excellent development of the main characters what gives that very human touch to the story, as it really shows a real understanding not only of Steinbeck's novel, but also of the real social situations that inspired the book.
In 1939, John Ford was in one of the best periods of his career, having directed "Stagecoach", "Young Mr. Lincoln" and "Drums Along the Mohawk" in less than 12 months. "The Grapes of Wrath" would also be shot the same year, being the culminating work of that extraordinary series of masterpieces. While Ford was better known for his legendary westerns and larger-than-life heroes, "The Grapes of Wrath" was in many levels a very personal movie for him, so he basically took Steinbeck's novel and completely made the story his own. Framed by Gregg Toland's wonderful cinematography, Ford brings to life the Joads' story in a way that mixes his own style with a focus so realistic that almost feels like a documentary. Without excessive sentimentalism, Ford tells in this movie a very human tale of survival, so universal that could easily be related to any group of people migrating due to poverty.
While Ford and Toland deserve a lot of the credit, the movie wouldn't be the same without the extraordinary performances of the cast. Leading the cast is Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, delivering one of his best works of acting in his portrayal of the young man. Considering his performance in Ford's "Young Mr. Lincoln", one could say that Fonda's career reached legendary status under Ford's direction. While Fonda's work is worthy of praise, two actors actually manage to overshadow him in this movie: Jane Darwell and John Carradine. As the idealist preacher Jim Casy, Carradine makes a terrific job in what's probably the story's most interesting character, completely embodying Casy's persona in an atypical role for him. Like Carradine, Jane Darwell makes a wonderful job (probably her finest) as Ma Joad, and without a doubt she truly deserved that Academy award she received for her performance.
As written above, the movie has several considerable differences with the novel (specially the second half), so fans expecting a complete translation of the book will be a bit disappointed. However, Johnson and Ford did a wonderful job in the adaptation than while considerably different beasts, both the movie and the novel carry the same spirit and the message that Steinbeck tried to give in his book. Interestingly, producer Darryl F. Zanuck also saw the film as a personal project and certainly his involvement helped the movie to get away from censorship as most as possible. While the film has indeed some flaws (most famously the sudden and unexplained disappearance of a minor character), it's hard to diminish its value due to them, as the beauty of its craft is so big that they can be easily dismissed.
With a haunting atmosphere, a beautiful visual composition, and superb performances by his actors, Ford created one of the first masterpieces of the 40s and one of the finest American movies ever made. While already a celebrated director by the time of its release, this movie consolidated Ford as a master of his craft. Despite their differences, John Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" truly carries the spirit of Steinbeck's novel, as well as the ghost of Tom Joad.