Marriage, alienation, and Alfred Hitchcock: Why Rear Window belongs on my A+ list

You hardly notice the knot growing in your stomach. The glamorous movie stars on the screen are doing little more than talking as they try to work out whether or not there has been a murder. Slowly you begin to realize, long before they do, that they’re putting themselves in danger. Your hand starts squeezing the armrest–or a loved one’s hand. Before it’s over, you may shriek in terror.

And you’ll enjoyed every second of it.

Most love Vertigo, but to my mind, Rear Window tops every other thriller created by the master of the genre, Alfred Hitchcock. He plays the audience like an organ, making us laugh, worry, clap, and scream at his command. And it’s never less than thoroughly entertaining.

But Rear Window is more than just entertainment. As James Stewart turns his binoculars on his neighbors, Hitchcock aims his directly at us. And what he sees isn’t pretty. We’re voyeurs but not friends; lovers, but not committed.

As a study of urban society wrapped up in the pleasant package of an escapist thriller, Rear Window makes my A+ list. These are the near-perfect films that I fell in love with years (preferably decades) ago and still love today. I revisited this 1954 classic Friday night at the Castro, where it opened the Noir City festival.

One set, but what a set

The entirety of Rear Window is set in the small, Greenwich Village apartment of news photographer L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies (James Stewart). Everything you see in the film is either in the apartment, or visible through the large rear window that looks out at his neighbors.

This is a one-set film -placing the story in a confined space. Depending on whether you count Dial M for Murder, it’s the third or fourth such film he made in a decade. But he did it right with Rear Window, building one of the most impressive sets in film history. The backs of several apartment buildings create a makeshift courtyard. And above that courtyard are the windows in which we spy on other people’s lives.

And Jefferies spies on them, too. A lot. He’s recovering from a work-related injury, which leaves him confined to a wheelchair and his apartment. Boredom has turned him into a peeping tom. He spends his time watching his neighbors. He doesn’t know their names, but he knows their likes, dislikes, habits, and routines. He’s given some nicknames—Miss Torso, Miss Lonelyhearts, the Salesman, and so on.

He’s not alone all of the time. A nurse, played by the wonderful Thelma Ritter, comes in daily to give a massage, make lunch, and dole out philosophy. Ritter provides at least half of the film’s laughs; a great part for one of Hollywood’s greatest unsung actresses. And nightly, there’s his girlfriend (Grace Kelly)–a young woman so beautiful and aristocratic that you wonder why she settled on a middle-aged, self-described “camera bum.”

Then the Salesman’s wife–an invalid–disappears. Jefferies begins to suspect that the salesman murdered her, and sets out to convince his girlfriend, nurse, and–the most skeptical of all–the police.

Watching people watching people

There’s something inherently voyeuristic about watching a movie, and in Rear Window, you’re spying on people who are spying on people. Jeffries has his own collection of screens to watch, and the people he’s watching don’t know what he’s up to. Each of the windows looks a bit like a movie screen. And he often looks through lenses–either binoculars and later, as the story heats up, a camera with a very long telephoto lens. The audience is complacent complicit in his invasion of his neighbors’ privacy, and Hitchcock doesn’t let us forget it.

Jeffries knows his neighbors by spying on them, but he doesn’t know them the way neighbors are supposed to know each other. He hasn’t talked to them. He doesn’t know their names. And they know nothing about him. The Greenwich Village created on a Paramount sound stage for Rear Window is a microcosm of urban alienation.

In one key scene, a woman discovers that her dog is dead–intentionally killed. “You don’t know the meaning of the word neighbors,” she cries out. “Neighbors like each other; speak to each other, cares if anybody lives or dies.” And the speech has a temporary effect, causing a brief moment of community. There’s still some humanity in Greenwich Village.

The problem with marriage

According to Patrick McGilligan’s biography, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, Hitchcock’s wife and primary collaborator, Alma Revelle, had an affair in the late 1940s. McGilligan couldn’t find out if Hitchcock knew, and if he did, how he reacted.

But if you look at his films of the early 1950s, it’s easy to imagine that Hitchcock at least suspected. In Strangers on a Train, the protagonist’s philandering wife is strangled to death. In Dial M for Murder, the villain’s philandering wife almost meets the same fate.

Rear Window takes a more complicated look at marriage, but it’s still not a happy one. The killer has murdered his wife, and from the brief moments where we see them together, we can see why. She’s not only high maintenance; she’s a harpy–insulting her husband mercilessly.

And that’s not the only marriage in the film. A couple of newlyweds have moved into an apartment, and the appear to be very happy. It’s pretty clear that whatever they’re doing behind the closed window shade couldn’t be shown in a 1954 movie. But the last time we see them, they’re arguing.

(To be fair, an older couple seem to be happy together.)

And finally, there are the film’s romantic leads. Kelly’s Lisa is pressuring Stewart’s Jeffery into marriage. He’s reluctant, feeling that neither of them can adapt to the other’s lifestyle. He has a point.

Rear Window is a technically polished, thoroughly enjoyable, and thought-provoking. Alfred Hitchcock made a lot of great films, but none surpassed this one.

A+ List: The Lady Eve

The art of screwball comedy is pretty much lost today, and has been for at least 60 years. Sure, we still have romantic comedies, and some of them are even pretty good. But the screwball was different. The romantic leads were not only attractive and sexy; they were glamorous–dressed, made up and photographed to look like the absolute zenith of young, gorgeous aristocrats.

And yet these gorgeous aristocrats acted like low comedians. They’d ruin their clothes, do double takes, and suffer the indignity of pratfalls.

Screwballs also dealt with class issues–in a light way. One of the two romantic leads usually came from a more comfortable and respectable class of people than the other.

By bringing together a shy, scientifically-minded aristocrat and a beautiful con artist, Preston Sturges created the perfect screwball. The Lady Eve is cynical, sexy, occasionally touching, and very, very funny. It makes my A+ list of near-perfect films that I fell in love with years (preferably decades) ago and still love today.

(For what it’s worth, Bringing Up Baby is my second favorite screwball. The Coen Brother’s overlooked Intolerable Cruelty is the closest thing to screwball we’ve had in decades. But back to The Lady Eve.)

Barbara Stanwyck plays the title character, or, to be more accurate, she plays Jean, who plays the title character. Jean is half of a father-daughter team of card sharks preying on ocean liner passengers.

She and her father (Charles Coburn) find their next victim in Charles Pike, of the Connecticut Pikes (Henry Fonda in a rare and wonderful comic performance). His family made a fortune ages ago in the brewery business (“Pike’s Pale; the ale that won for Yale”). But he’s not interested in beer. He wants to study snakes. In fact, he’s returning home from an Amazonian expedition. Talk about the perfect mark for a beautiful crook.

In an early scene in the ship’s dining room, every unmarried woman onboard tries to catch Charles’ eye, but he cares only for the book he’s reading (called Are Snakes Necessary). Jean uses her pocket mirror to check out her competition. It’s a hilarious sequence, supported by her running commentary and topped with her brilliant and effective way of getting Charles’ attention.

About half of the film is set on the ship, as Jean and her father set their trap. Of course she’s going to fall in love with the sucker– anyone who’s ever seen a movie knows that. But by the time they reach land, the love has turned to hate.

In the second half of the film, Jean pretends to be an English noblewoman, the Lady Eve, to seek her revenge. And it’s all so easy. American aristocrats, at least in this movie, worship British gentry as the real thing.

Sturges clearly sympathizes with the con artists, not the aristocrats. You can’t watch the movie without hoping that Jean and her father will thoroughly humiliate Charles.

The Lady Eve is filled with the brilliant dialog, loopy logic, and strange characters that populate almost every movie written and directed by Preston Sturges. A romantic marriage proposal is marred by a horse who insists on nuzzling the prospective groom. Charles’ father reacts like a three-year-old when the servants are too busy to bring his breakfast. And there’s the whole thing about snakes; they’re not really part of the plot, but the eccentricity makes Charles more interesting, more socially awkward, and more loveable than your run-of-the-mill rich and handsome young man.

Sturges used comic supporting players brilliantly, especially William Demarest, who shines in almost every Sturges movie. In this one, he’s Charles’ working-class bodyguard “and very bad valet.” With his blue-collar demeanor, he clearly doesn’t belong with all these rich people–or even with the other servants. But he watches Charles like a hawk, suspecting foul play even when Charles is winning (rightly, of course).

The movie is filled with Sturges’ brilliant comic dialog. I won’t quote any. It’s best heard in context.

Visually speaking, there’s nothing exceptional about The Lady Eve. It looks like any other Paramount comedy of the early 1940s, clearly shot on sound stages. But what’s done and said on those stages makes it a masterpiece.

A+ List: The Kid Brother (also Jaws)

When people talk about the masterpieces of silent comedy, they usually name The Gold Rush, The General, and City Lights. If they bring up Harold Lloyd at all, they’ll praise Safety Last
or The Freshman.

To my mind, Lloyd’s The Kid Brother belongs with the best. It earns that right by its irresistible story, its beautiful cinematography, its rousing finish, and its nostalgic and yet not entirely positive view of rural America. But most of all, it earns that level of respect by containing several of the funniest extended comedy sequences ever committed to film.

For these reasons, I put this relatively obscure 1927 comedy on my A+ list. This list contains the near-perfect films that I fell in love with years (preferably decades) ago and still love today.

But first, let me draw your attention to another movie on the list: Jaws. I’m not writing about that one now because I’ve written about it before. You can read my Blu-ray review and my Book vs. Movie article.

Okay, back to The Kid Brother.

Harold (Lloyd’s characters were always named Harold; only the last names changed) is the youngest son of Sheriff Hickory–the most powerful and respected man in Hickoryville. Harold’s father and two older brothers are big, strong, manly men. Harold, who does the housework while the men in the family clear the forest and carry logs, idolizes them. They don’t think much of him.

The arrival of a medicine show, made up of two evil men and one innocent young woman (Jobyna Ralston) jumpstarts the plot. Harold, barely recognized as a grownup by his family, will have to vanquish the villains, win the lady fair, and save his father from a lynching.

And of course he can do it. What no one seems to notice is that Harold Hickory is by far the smartest person in Hickoryville. He’s built contraptions to help him with his chores. He regularly outwits the large bully next door. When his much stronger brothers set out to beat him up, he tricks them into attacking their even stronger father. Even Harold doesn’t know how smart he is.

A note on authorship: Harold Lloyd produced and starred in his films. He never took director credit. (The Kid Brother was officially directed by Ted Wilde and J.A. Howe.) I consider Lloyd the auteur of his films.

No one could build an extended comedy scene like Lloyd and his team of collaborators. The Kid Brother has at least four great extended comedy scenes, each astonishing in its creativity, meticulous construction, and laugh delivery. In my favorite, Harold takes the girl home, where his brothers are waiting to beat him up. Needless to say, there are no beatings. I won’t go into details.

We don’t only laugh at Harold; we cheer for him. He’s an underdog whose considerable gifts are overlooked by everyone (except the girl, of course). This is Lloyd at his most sympathetic. In Safety Last, he tricked people so he could lie to his girlfriend. In The Freshman, he wants to be the most popular kid on the campus. But in The Kid Brother, he’s avoiding a whipping and, in the last act, fighting with a known murderer.

Lloyd knew when to turn down the laughs and let the story take hold. That final fight is truly suspenseful, and scary. But Lloyd added brilliant comic pieces to it as a sort of leavening.

He does much the same thing with romantic scenes. He comforts the girl, who has just lost everything she owns. She’s resting her head on his shoulder. He feels drops of water on his hand, and he looks up. No rain. He realizes she’s crying. He hold her tighter. The drops on his hand turn into a torrent. Now he’s really worried about her. And yes, it’s raining.

For all its feuds and backwardness, Hickoryville looks like a beautiful place to live. The Kid Brother is easily Lloyd’s most visually pleasing film, with sunlight streaming through the trees and glistening on the water. Walter Lundin’s photography here rivals that of Bert Haines and Dev Jennings in Keaton’s The General.

A confession: I have some personal history that may affect my love of The Kid Brother. It was the first silent feature I ever saw, and the first silent I saw properly–in a theater with live music. In the last years of his life, Lloyd screened his films at schools in the Los Angeles area. In my first year at Hollywood High School (1969-70), he came with The Kid Brother. The school auditorium had a pipe organ, and Gaylord Carter played the accompaniment. That was the beginning of my love of silent film.

Also, like Harold Hickory, I’m the youngest of three sons. I know something about avoiding confrontation with bigger and stronger siblings.

But I don’t think these issues effect my opinion all that much. I’ve seen The Kid Brother theatrically at least four times. I know the reactions it gets from an audience. Believe me; it’s a masterpiece.

The A+ List Table of Contents

As I slowly work through my A+ list of favorite films, it’s occurred to me that there needs to be some sort of index for this list. And so, this is it.

For a film to make this list, it must be the perfect embodiment of its genre or, better yet, stand beyond genre. It must be at least 20 years old (so I know that it’s stood the test of time), and I personally must of have known and loved the film for years–preferably decades. These are, in the truest sense of the word, my all-time favorite films.

Here are the films I’ve written about so far, in alphabetical order. About half of these are essays I wrote specifically for this list. The others are Blu-ray reviews, appreciations, and other types of articles. I’ll identify those. If I’ve written two articles on a particular film, I’ll include both.

This list will continue to grow.

A+ List: It’s a Wonderful Life

A lot of people hate Frank Capra’s most famous film, It’s a Wonderful Life. They find it cloying, manipulative, and unbearably sentimental. After all, it finishes with what’s probably the happiest happy ending in the history of Hollywood happy endings.

But I disagree. Yes, that ending lays on the Christmas cheer and milk of human kindness very thick. But in context with the rest of the movie, it’s the only ending that could work. For two hours, we’ve come to know a quaint, lovely, all-American small town that is only quaint, lovely, and all-American because one man gave up every one of his dreams and ambitions to protect his neighbors. And we know, as we watch that final moment of supreme happiness, that the primary threats to man and town have not gone away.

For a film to make my A+ list, it must be the perfect embodiment of its genre or, better yet, stand beyond genre. It must be at least 20 years old (so I know that it’s stood the test of time), and I personally must of have known and loved the film for years–preferably decades.

I started revisiting these personal favorites back in May, working through them slowly. I’m covering this unabashed Christmas movie because it follows Ikiru alphabetically. That it happened to come up in the right season is pure serendipity.

George Bailey (James Stewart in one of his best performances) is a small-town boy who dreams of a bigger world. He wants to travel, shake the dust of his home town off his feet, go to college, and be someone. But the town of Bedford Falls is controlled by the wealthy and cruel Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore in the perfect personification of an evil banker). Only a small and barely surviving building and loan, founded by George’s father, gives the townspeople an alternative. As his life progresses, George gives up one dream after another as he struggles to keep the small business from going under and taking the town with it.

Capra and his various writing collaborators gave the movie an unusual structure. George’s life is covered in an extended flashback–about half of the film’s running time–as one angel briefs another on George, who will soon attempt suicide. The flashback covers some 17 years of George’s life, from enthusiastic childhood to bitter disillusionment. The flashback takes time to be joyful, troubled, romantic, funny, and tragic. And it all works together.

Capra wisely keeps all the angel stuff light. We never actually see heaven, although we get the impression that it’s organized like the army–with First and Second Class Angels. That would have been timely humor in 1946.

In the second half, George’s uncle and partner (Thomas Mitchell) loses $8,000 of the building and loan’s money. Of course George will take the blame himself, and will need a miracle to avoid prison. One miracle comes in the form of Clarence (Henry Travers), the above-mentioned Angel Second Class, who shows George the hellhole that Bedford Falls (now named Potterville) would become if he had never been born.

Clarence’s magic saves George’s life and immortal soul, but it doesn’t solve his monetary problems. It will take a more earthly miracle–the love of his family, friends, and neighbors–to replace the missing $8,000.

Of course George is still poor and still stuck in Bedford Falls, where Mr. Potter still runs everything. But at least now George knows that people appreciate his sacrifices.

Capra shows himself a master of visual storytelling in this very talky film. Consider the early scene where the ten-year-old George works in a pharmacy. The sequence tells us, completely visually, that his pharmacist boss is drunk and in shock over the death of his son, and has accidentally and potentially fatally mixed up prescriptions.

Steward is brilliant as George, especially in the family scene where he verbally strikes out at his wife and kids. We understand why he’s in that emotional state, but they don’t. When he grabs the phone and starts screaming at his daughter’s teacher, who most certainly does not deserve such abuse, we understand and sympathize with his uncontrollable desperation while we’re horrified at his behavior.

The famous never-been-born sequence is a nightmare of film noir (not a term we associate with Capra). George races from one part of town to another, trying to find someone who recognizes him and discovering a dirty, evil, dangerous world.

One confession: Every time I see this movie, the ending brings me to tears. Frank Capra tells us that altruism comes at a very high cost. But in that ending, he shows the rewards as well.

A+ List: Ikiru; also a Blu-ray review

A bureaucrat, emotionally dead and cut-off from both his job and his family, discovers that he has only months to live. He has scarce time to make his empty life meaningful. He will find that meaning in Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece, Ikiru.

The name translates into English as To Live.

When I started this project of revisiting my all-time favorite films–my A+ list of personal classics–I thought I would quickly skip over Ikiru on the grounds that I discussed it previously in a Kurosawa Diary entry. But then Criterion announced the Blu-ray, just as Ikiru came up on the alphabetical list. Sometimes, the timing works.

For a film to make my A+ list, it must be the perfect embodiment of its genre or, better yet, stand beyond genre. It must be at least 20 years old (so I know that it’s stood the test of time), and I personally must of have known and loved the film for years–preferably decades.

Consider American films about dying of cancer. In The Bucket List, the main characters go skydiving, fly over the North Pole, and eat in a gourmet French restaurant. In Breaking Bad, the hero makes and deals drugs to pay for treatment and help his family. But in Kurasawa’s moral universe, the dying protagonist finds redemption by fighting city hall and getting a park built in a slum.

What’s more, Kurosawa found a unique and original way to structure the story that keeps it from getting preachy or maudlin.

Warning: What you’re about to read has mild spoilers. I don’t think they will ruin your first screening of Ikiru. But if you’re worried, skip down to the First Impression section below.

In what was probably the best role of his career, Takashi Shimura plays Watanabe, the city hall bureaucrat who almost accidentally discovers he has an advanced case of stomach cancer. He stops going to work. A widower, he discovers he can’t make any significant contact with his son and daughter-in-law, even though they live with him.

He tries wine, women, and song; they don’t help. He befriends a former co-worker–a young woman bursting with life. Their friendship is platonic, but his family assumes otherwise. He’s happy when he’s around her, but eventually she pushes him away.

Before his diagnosis, he led a department where everyone pretended to be busy but never did anything meaningful. Now he takes on a crusade: He will get the city to drain an germ-infested sump and replace it with a park.

And just when the story is about to become sentimental, Kurosawa jumps ahead five months and the narrator tells us that Watanabe is dead. (Ikiru uses narration sparingly, but brilliantly. This is the only drama I’ve ever seen where a voice-of-God narrator sounds sarcastic.) In the extended wake scene that follows, the hero’s family and co-workers piece together at least part of what he never told them.

After Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura was the most important actor in Kurosawa’s career. Primarily a character actor, Shimura rarely got starring roles. But he carries this picture beautifully, and you feel his presence even in the wake sequence, where you see him only in flashbacks.

For a film about death, Ikiru can be surprisingly lively. A jazz nightclub scene gives you a taste of Kurosawa’s love for American popular music. Jokes abound, many around the “rakish” hat he acquires in his night of partying.

Aside from the jazz, music plays some important roles here. Twice in the film, Shimura sings a touchingly sad song (Shimura acted in musicals before his Kurosawa years). And the story’s major turning point happens in a restaurant where young people in the background sing “Happy Birthday.”

Class differences play an important part in Ikiru. Look closely, and you’ll see a society where your birth defines your life in often cruel ways.

Few films are as perfect as Ikiru.

First Impression

The Ikiru Blu-ray comes in a standard Criterion case. The cover shows the famous still of Shimura sitting on a swing on a snowy night. Inside, along with the disc, is a printed foldout with two articles: Donald Richie’s “To Live” and Pico Iver’s “Ikiru Many Autumns Later.” The foldout also contains credits for the film and disc, and Criterion’s traditional “About the Transfer” page.

If you own Richie’s classic book, The Films of Akira Kurosawa, you already own the first article on the foldout.

When you inset the disc, the home screen shows a close-up of a very scared Takashi Shimura. There’s no sound. The menu follows Criterion design, with the options on the right.

The only language options are English subtitles–On (default) or Off.

As with all Criterion Blu-rays, when you insert the disc a second time, you’ll get an option to go back to where you left off. Selecting No will bring you to the home screen.

How It Looks

The 4K scan was taken from a fine-grain master positive–the original camera negative is either lost or destroyed. Criterion presents this scan in 1080p AVC.

For the most part, it looks excellent. Ikiru is not a pretty movie, but the details–stacks of papers, peeling wallpaper–play an important role in creating the atmosphere of post-war Tokyo and of useless bureaucracy.

Unfortunately, some of the source material was beyond repair (or beyond Criterion’s budget). Occasionally the image was marred by what appeared to be uneven exposure, with part of the screen bleached out..

How It Sounds

The uncompressed LPCM 1.0 24-bit, 24-bit mono soundtrack did its job. In some of the music scenes, you could hear the early 1950s technology struggling to capture the notes.

But I suspect this is how it sounded when Kurosawa signed off on the mix. I have no complaints.

And the Extras

The suppliments are identical to those on the 2003 two-disc DVD release.

  • Commentary by Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa.
    In a truly excellent commentary, Prince discusses Kurosawa’s techniques, his collaborators, and bits about post-war Japan that helps make this very universal story specifically Japanese.
  • A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies: 81 minutes, 1080i, but looks like SD. Produced by Kurosawa’s company only two years after his death, this overly-referential, feature-length documentary covers his movie-making techniques from writing to scoring. Much of it is shallow and dull. But occasionally, especially when Kurosawa is on screen talking, it’s interesting and informative.
  • Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create: 42 minutes, 1080i, but looks like SD. In 2002, Japanese television did a documentary series on Kurosawa’s films. This is the Ikira episode. It’s mostly antidotes from people who worked on the film, and for the most part it’s fascinating. Very much worth watching.
  • Trailer

A+ List: The Grapes of Wrath

By all logic, the film version of The Grapes of Wrath shouldn’t have been made–let alone become a masterpiece. It’s a great film based on a great novel–how often does that happen? It was directed by the revered auteurist director John Ford, but it’s not really an auteurist film. It’s a Hollywood movie from the height of the studio era, yet it’s unabashedly political, utterly lacking in glamour, and holds no punches (well, not many). It’s a story very much of its time, yet its themes echo into the 21st century.

I first saw The Grapes of Wrath, made in 1940, in a 16mm print in 1972. I’ve seen it many times since (only twice in 35mm, but one of those was a nitrate print) and have always been moved by it. It easily makes my A+ list of films that I loved decades ago and still love–my all-time favorites.

Book vs. film

I don’t agree with the cliché that the book is always better than the movie, but great books seldom make great films. A great novel is a great novel in part because prose suits the story. It’s bound to lose something when told in images. Mediocre books often make great films (see Jaws and Red River), but great books almost always make disappointing films.

But The Grapes of Wrath is the proverbial exception that proves the rule. John Steinbeck’s novel became more than just the best-selling book of 1939. It won a Pulitzer. It’s considered one of the Great American Novels.

The novel, and the film, trace the story of the large and extended Joad family, Oklahoma farmers thrown off of their land by the twin disasters of economic depression and dust storms. They pile everything that they own into a ramshackle truck and head west to the promised land of California. After a long and difficult trip, they find exploitation, poverty, and violence in the Golden State.

Following the novel closely wasn’t an option in 1940. It might be an option today, but only on cable television, where there’s little censorship and a story can run as long as needed. (I would love to see an HBO adaptation.)

In order to fit The Grapes of Wrath into two hours that would pass the censors of the day, screenwriter Nunnally Johnson significantly changed the story–a dangerous thing to do with a recent best-seller. The two biggest changes: Johnson provided a semi-happy ending by moving the book’s most optimistic section, where the Joads temporally stay in a well-run government camp, to the last act. And he completely removed the last and most depressing section of the book.

But despite these changes, the film has a power all its own–the power of images, and especially of faces. The look on a face can show a complexity of emotion that feels labored when described in words. And when a great director like John Ford is coaching those actors, the faces can say plenty.

John Ford–part of the team

We tend to think of a film directed by John Ford as a John Ford film, in a way that we don’t think of a film directed by, say, Michael Curtiz. And for Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and many other masterpieces, that description fits. But with The Grapes of Wrath, studio head Darryl F. Zanuck and producer/screenwriter Nunnally Johnson deserve equal credit with Ford.

Zanuck, a former screenwriter, was probably the most talented of the studio-era moguls–and with The Grapes of Wrath, he proved himself the most courageous. Yes, the book was a huge commercial hit, but it was being banned, burned, and denounced as Communist propaganda as the film was being made.

Johnson was one of the best screenwriters working in Hollywood, and had reached the point where he was producing the films that he wrote. Ford, who liked to pretend he didn’t answer to anyone, answered to both Zanuck and Johnson.

Which isn’t to say that Ford didn’t play an important role. In Grapes as in all of his best work, Ford used actors and photography to create an atmosphere that balanced between myth and realism. It would not have been a great film without Ford.

All movies, of course, are collaborations, and you can’t give all the credit for The Grapes of Wrath to Zanuck, Johnson, and Ford. After Citizen Kane, cinematographer Gregg Toland does some of his best work here. The film’s star, Henry Fonda, gives one of his best performances as Tom Joad–a basically decent, semi-literate man with a short fuse.

But even Fonda is out-acted by two of the best supporting roles in American cinema: Jane Darwell as Ma Joad and John Carradine as “Preacher” Casy. Darwell’s Ma is the strong backbone of the family–the matriarch who keeps everything together even when there’s nothing left. Carradine’s Casy is a former man of God who lost that divine spark. He’ll find it again, in the most unlikely place. He’s a decent, sinning, caring, talkative man, trying to understand the world and find another way to save souls.

Hollywood gets it right

As remarkable as it is, The Grapes of Wrath is still very much a Hollywood film of 1940. Most of it was shot on sound stages, the backlot, and southern California locations. Almost every speaking part is played by a familiar face (if not a famous name).

Then as now, Hollywood was allergic to controversy. But The Grapes of Wrath makes no attempt to be even-handed, upbeat, or escapist. This American film is telling American filmgoers that something is very rotten in America. Dustbowl refugees such as the Joads are treated like scum, paid literally starvation wages (if they get paid at all), threatened and attacked by mobs, and denounced as “reds” if they complain. You didn’t see that sort of thing in a Hollywood film of 1940. I doubt you would see it today.

And yet, even some of the villains can be decent. Ford regular Ward Bond has one scene as a cop who runs the Joads out of town. But he’s as kind as he could be under the circumstances.

Yes, the government camp sequence allows the audience to relax and see the Joads find a mild degree of happiness–even if they’re still living in a tent and unsure how they will eat. But even this was controversial at the time. Steinbeck–and the filmmakers–wanted to show that the US government was the only entity that could fix this problem. Come to think of it, that’s a more controversial opinion today than it was in 1940.

The Grapes of Wrath in the 21st century

Steinbeck wrote, and Ford filmed, a story based on the reality around them. The specific conditions that drove the book and film no longer exist. But the story feels fresh today. It’s there in the California farmworkers still fighting for a decent life, in the disappearing family farms, in the growing Bay Area homeless population–which now includes people with full-time jobs. And it’s in the refugees pouring out of Syria in a desperate search for peace and security, and finding only hate and bigotry.

As long as human society detests its poorest members, The Grapes of Wrath will not be out of date.

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