• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:February 21, 2021

Grapes of Wrath: Refugees from Oklahoma


grapesofwrathIn 1940, and in 2016, there were and are people who refuse to believe that those who live in squalid camps do so out of necessity. Somehow, they think these people choose to do that because of their culture or stubbornness. More than 70 years ago, poor farmers were forced to abandon their homes in Oklahoma because of the Dust Bowl and go west to California – often only to find that the Depression left jobs very scarce. Conditions were horrible for these ”Oakies” who had to live in migrant camps. Their plight was chronicled in John Steinbeck’s now-classic novel ”The Grapes of Wrath” and it took only a year for it to become a Hollywood movie.

But producer Darryl F. Zanuck, a hard-line conservative, was afraid that the film would become leftist propaganda. It took hiring private investigators to find out if things really were that bad for ”Oakies” to convince Zanuck of the need to tell this story.

Serving four years for manslaughter
Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) has just been released from prison after serving four years for manslaughter. He returns home to the family farm in Oklahoma only to learn that his family has left it and are temporarily living at a neighbor’s place. Another neighbor tells Tom and Jim Casy (John Carradine), a former preacher, that many farmers in the area have been forced from their land by the deed holders – who told them that they had no choice but to obey the banks. Caterpillar tractors are tearing down farms and the Joads have no choice but to pack up and leave. Tom is reunited with his family and Casy joins them as they begin their journey to California along Route 66…

Can be read politically
One of the first films to be inducted into the National Film Registry in 1989, The Grapes of Wrath is a great American classic that certainly can be read in a very political light. Zanuck didn’t want to be accused of being a Communist, and Ford was said not to care about the film’s social message, only the story of one family’s struggle… but it’s impossible to remove the Joads from the reasons why they have to endure hardship.

The film constantly highlights the inequality and injustices committed, from how the family is evicted to how profiteers take advantage of poor ”Oakies” in California, hiring them as fruit-pickers but barely paying them enough money to survive. The police is depicted as a corrupt organization, there to protect the profiteers who bribe them. Through all the turmoil, including a violent strike in the film’s second half, Ford and writer Nunnally Johnson keep their focus on the Joads, turning the characters into human begins that we care deeply about. It’s a terrific cast, with Fonda in one of his most memorable performances as the proud Tom, and Jane Darnell who’s simply outstanding as the matriarch; she’s also the center of some of the film’s most touching scenes.

Exceptionally well crafted and photographed by Gregg Toland who mixes California and Oklahoma locations with backlot and studio shots in a seamless way; the film feels and looks more realistic than many others from the period. Narratively, the film finds the perfect balance between gut-wrenching emotion and a social message that’s full of anger.

So, what’s preventing this classic from getting five stars? Well, the only moment that doesn’t ring as true as the rest for me is when the Joads finally find solace in a camp run by the Agriculture Department. The contrast becomes absurdly stark and makes the movie look a bit look cheaply produced, government-funded propaganda. A minor quibble, especially as the final twenty minutes offer more heartfelt drama… but still.

The Grapes of Wrath 1940-U.S. 129 min. B/W. Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. Directed by John Ford. Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson. Novel: John Steinbeck. Cinematography: Gregg Toland. Music: Alfred Newman. Cast: Henry Fonda (Tom Joad), Jane Darwell (Ma Joad), John Carradine (Jim Casy), Charley Grapewin, Dorris Bowdon, Russell Simpson… Ward Bond.

Trivia: James Stewart and Walter Brennan were allegedly considered for roles.

Oscars: Best Director, Supporting Actress (Darnell).

Last word: “I just liked it, that’s all. I’d read the book – it was a good story – and Darryl Zanuck had a good script on it. The whole thing appealed to me – being about simple people – and the story was similar to the famine in Ireland, when they threw people off the land and left them wandering on the roads to starve. That may have had something to do with it – part of my Irish tradition – but I liked the idea of this family going out and trying to find their way in the world. It was a timely story…” (Ford, interview with Peter Bogdanovich)



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