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.