#46 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
Adapted from the novel by John Steinbeck, John Ford reunited with the star of his last two films in The Grapes of Wrath, the tale of a family of Okies moving from their lost sharecropping home in Oklahoma to the promise of a new life in California, only to find that reality is not the promise they had expected. Sanding down much of the more pointed political points of the source material, the end result is a very handsome, well-performed, but somewhat flagging portrait of life on the bottom rung of the Great Depression.
Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) returns home from four years in the penitentiary for killing a man who had stabbed him in a bar fight. Returning, he meets the former preacher Casy (John Carradine) who tells him that everyone is emptying the area, the sharecropping farms no longer making any profit and being gobbled up by…somebody, the company. The Joads are preparing to leave as well, Tom’s family having made it over to Tom’s uncle’s house for the final few days. Tagging along together, they collect the last of their things, lash them to the top of an old truck, and they head out west towards the promise of work for eight hundred pickers of fruit. The most notable member of the family is Ma Joad (Jane Darwell), the hearty matriarch who has to find strength to hold the unit together in the face of increasing oppression from circumstances and, later, outside forces.
The odyssey to California is a hard one on the family. Grandpa Joad dies on the first night, unable to accept the loss of his home of so many decades. Grandma Joad dies the night they pass into California, providing Ma some solace in that Grandma will get buried in a place so pretty and verdant. Tom’s younger sister Rose (Dorris Bowdon) is married to Connie Rivers (Eddie Quillan) who leaves the family once they reach the first camp, presumably to find work in radios like he had spoken about on the road. Most of the members of the large family are window dressing, though, the focus falling on Tom and Ma most particularly.
I like the film through the odyssey to California most. It’s the story of a family torn down by forces beyond their control, trying to keep it together with the promise of a new life over the horizon. I think this stuff works really well. It’s when they get to California that I begin to feel a certain disconnect, like the story is finding easy villains and escapes in order to provide the cleanest possible conflict for our completely blameless and virtuous family of Okies.
The first farm they get to work on is a peach farm, and the owners of the farm run it like a prison camp. People are behind fences, disallowed walking at night, and they only have use of the company store to spend their wages on, five cents for every bucket of non-bruised fruit. When Tom sneaks out and discovers Casy hidden just outside the fence with some agitators, the wayward preacher having lost his faith in God and replacing it with an amorphous faith in…the unity of man, I guess, the authorities find them. Tom kills one of the police officers after they strike and kill Casy, the scene happening in the dark to give Tom enough time to escape the setting but not before receiving a compromising cut across his face. The Joads have to flee or else Tom will be found out, and when they go they find a new camp run by the Department of Agriculture. In contrast to the hell on earth that was the place they just left, there are no gates, it’s clean, everyone’s happy, and they’re greeted by a kindly old man Mr. Thomas (Roger Imhof) who lays out the rules of the place.
All is well until the police, for reasons that are unclear, decide that they are going to take this happy little place and destroy it by staging a riot at the weekly Saturday night dance, but word gets to the inhabitants who are able to quell things before the police can arrive and get in without their warrant.
It all just feels too easy. The antagonists are footmen of something larger. The nice guys are squeaky clean. It’s amorphous dramatically, and I find it hard to get really involved emotionally.
And yet…gosh darn it, this movie is pretty. Lensed by Gregg Toland, the man who would go on to be Orson Welles’ cinematographer on Citizen Kane the next year, The Grapes of Wrath is flat out gorgeous visually. It struck me first in an early scene where Tom and Casy are asking Muley Graves (John Qualen) in the abandoned Joad house about what happened in the area. It’s nighttime, and the scene is only lit by a single candle that Tom holds in front of him (knowing what little I do know about cinematography and lens aperture, I’d assume that the candle isn’t the thing actually giving off the light we see but that it’s enhanced by well placed and hidden electrical light sources), and it’s beautiful to simply look at. There’s a similar scene late in the film when Tom decides to leave to protect his family and he has to say goodbye to Ma. There are beautiful shots of the countryside with our characters right in front (they may be rear projection, but it’s hard to tell because they’re so well done), and the framing is always on point. Ford made a whole lot of these decisions, but it was Toland who executed them. His work made this Ford’s best looking film, for sure.
This is the film where Ford won his second Oscar for director (he won his first for The Informer), the film itself losing Best Picture to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and I can see how the Academy would split the awards. Ford’s direction is really great, the practiced hand of a master craftsman applying every cinematic trick to a story he could in order to elevate it, but Rebecca is simply the better overall film. Not that the Academy ever really thinks like this, but I get it nonetheless. The Grapes of Wrath is a movie about the message of justice for the migrant worker first and foremost by the end. The craftsmanship of the construction helps it tremendously, but I end up feeling preached to instead of entertained or enlightened. It doesn’t help that sanding down the rough edges of the book’s politics created a kind of mushy point in the film that’s hard to discern on its own.
It’s respectable, really well-made, and pretty solid, but I end up feeling like it’s kind of empty at the same time.