What's the Big Deal?: The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

People losing their homes to foreclosure, moving around the country in search of work, becoming increasingly desperate and angry at the fat cats who own everything. Sound familiar? Then you are either reading about current events, or you are watching The Grapes of Wrath! But why is this film significant? What makes it a big deal? Let's load up the jalopy and take a gander.

The praise: The Grapes of Wrath was nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture, director (John Ford), actor (Henry Fonda), supporting actress (Jane Darwell), editing, adapted screenplay, and sound recording. Darwell and Ford won their trophies -- it was already the third for Ford, who'd also won Oscars for directing The Informer (1935) and Stagecoach (1939). The film was named best picture by the National Board of Review, and Ford named best director by the New York Film Critics Circle. When the National Film Registry began preserving important movies, in 1989, The Grapes of Wrath was in the first batch of selected titles. It placed 21st on the American Film Institute's 1997 list of the best movies ever made, and 23rd on the 2007 revised list.

The context: Today, John Steinbeck is perhaps best known to American high school students as the early-20th-century author whose books are on the required reading list, and who is not Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner. In the late 1930s, however, he was something else: a hotshot bestselling novelist.

Tortilla Flat and Of Mice and Men had been very successful, the latter adapted into a hit Broadway play, both of them soon made into movies. The arrival of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath in 1939 was a major event in the publishing world, probably akin to a new Harry Potter book in the 2000s (though without the midnight release parties and people dressing up as characters). The book, which depicted the plight of impoverished Americans looking for work in California during the Great Depression, was instantly controversial -- either because it shined a light on the deplorable real-life circumstances of America's poor, or because it exaggerated those conditions in order to foster Steinbeck's left-wing, anti-capitalism sentiments, depending on your view. The book was banned, burned, read, discussed, and debated. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature.

The Grapes of WrathObviously, somebody would want to turn it into a movie. Somewhat less obviously, the people who did it were producer Darryl F. Zanuck and director John Ford, both much more conservative in their politics than the bleeding-heart Steinbeck, who was frequently accused of being a communist or worse. Zanuck sent private investigators to Oklahoma to see if things were as bad as Steinbeck had described, figuring he wouldn't be able to defend the film against detractors unless he could point to its factual basis. Steinbeck, who based the novel on a series of newspaper articles he'd written, always said that, if anything, he had downplayed the situation; Zanuck came to agree. John Ford, then the most celebrated director alive, claimed to have no particular affection for this movie, yet clearly put all of his effort into it. Still, it's worth noting that Ford, who notoriously hated studio interference, let Zanuck not only interfere with but actually direct the movie's final scene.

The Grapes of Wrath was being shot at the same time as Of Mice and Men, and Steinbeck was able to visit both sets. The author had sold the movie rights to Grapes on the condition that it be treated respectfully, and had a vested interest in the way it turned out. (For the record, he loved it, and Henry Fonda's lead performance in particular.) Because of the controversy surrounding the book, the movie was shot under a fake working title (Highway 66); Steinbeck himself was getting death threats from people who believed he had lied about the way migrant workers were treated in California, and who felt the book was socialist propaganda.

The contemporary movie reviews reflected the divided public opinion about the book. At Time magazine, Whittaker Chambers -- who had been a Communist and a spy for the Soviets before renouncing it all and becoming fervently anti-Communist -- reviewed the movie positively while taking the opportunity to mention, at some length, how much he disliked the book:

It will be a red rag to bull-mad Californians who may or may not boycott it. Others, who were merely annoyed at the exaggerations, propaganda and phony pathos of John Steinbeck's best selling novel, may just stay away. Pinkos who did not bat an eye when the Soviet Government exterminated 3,000,000 peasants by famine, will go for a good cry over the hardships of the Okies. But people who go to pictures for the sake of seeing pictures will see a great one. For The Grapes of Wrath is possibly the best picture ever made from a so-so book.

Chambers credited the changes made in the adaptation -- which toned down the liberal politics and provided a more hopeful ending -- for the film's superiority over its source material.

Over at the New York Times, critic Frank S. Nugent wrote a review so glowing and full of praise that Zanuck hired him to come work for 20th Century Fox. Nugent would eventually write several screenplays for John Ford, including The Searchers. Regarding The Grapes of Wrath, Nugent wrote:

Steinbeck's story might have been exaggeration; at least some will take comfort in thinking so. But if only half of it were true, that half still should constitute a tragedy of modern America, a bitter chapter of national history that has not yet been closed, that has, as yet, no happy ending, that has thus far produced but two good things: a great American novel (if it is truly a novel) and a great American motion picture.

John C. Flinn Sr., the critic for Variety, hedged his bets on the film's politics when he wrote his review, noting only that the depiction of "depraved conditions" at the California migrant workers' camps may cause "a yell ... from that quarter when the film moves into general release." (It was the Associated Farmers of California who had most strenuously objected to Steinbeck's book.)

While The Grapes of Wrath seeks to tell the story of the hundreds of thousands of Midwesterners displaced by drought and dust storms in the 1930s, it inevitably runs up against another story: that of the Great Depression. The Okies (so called because many were from Oklahoma) who lost their farms did so because of weather and soil conditions, not because of the stock market crash. But in migrating to California to seek work, they found that Depression-era economic conditions on the coast weren't much better than what they'd left behind, although at least the weather was better. To the extent that the film addresses the Great Depression, it is a rarity, one of the few movies of its era to depict it realistically.

The Grapes of WrathThe movie: Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), fresh out of prison for killin' a guy who attacked him in a bar fight, discovers that his family has lost its farm and is heading west to California to find work. Tom joins them as they encounter all manner of difficulty, mostly pertaining to California's unwelcoming attitude toward migrant workers, which stems from the fact that California doesn't have enough jobs, even menial ones, to sustain the residents it already has.

What it influenced: The book and movie were both big hits, popularly and critically, but it's the novel that has remained on the reading list all this time. The movie, for as acclaimed as it was in its day, fell off the radar eventually. (It wasn't released on DVD until 2004, well after many of its fellow classics had reached that format.)

But some effects can be traced directly to the movie. For example, there's Woody Guthrie's folk song, "The Ballad of Tom Joad," which Guthrie composed immediately after seeing the film. The song later inspired Bruce Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad."

Tom Joad has a famous speech near the end of the film, taken more or less from the book, that's been quoted and parodied many times. It runs along these lines:

Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad, I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready. And when the people are eatin' the stuff they raised, livin' in the houses they build, I'll be there, too.

You heard echoes of that from Rush Limbaugh in the 2010 Family Guy episode in which he played himself. ("Wherever there's a rich white guy in need of another tax break, I'll be there.") And speaking of cartoons, a 2008 South Park episode about people migrating west in search of Internet access closely parodies The Grapes of Wrath. The Marsh family's heavy-laden car is obviously based on the Joad jalopy.

Henry Fonda's son, Peter, would later star in Easy Rider, which told of a cross-country road trip in the opposite direction (California to Louisiana) and was, like The Grapes of Wrath, a reflection of then-current left-wing sensibilities.

What to look for: There's no escaping the fact that movies were made very differently 70 years ago from the way they are now. Never mind that they were in black-and-white: the whole style of acting was different from today's. It was more theatrical, less realistic. Much of the dialogue in The Grapes of Wrath is on-the-nose, casting ideas in black-and-white, good-vs-bad terms. The acting, which tends to be earnest and straightforward, enhances the effect. Not a lot of gray areas in this one.

If you've read Steinbeck's novel, you may be amused at how the customs of the day forced the movie to make some changes. For instance, a work of literature could use profanity and become a respected bestseller. You couldn't say those words in movies, though! Not even the comparatively mild cussing Steinbeck used ("sons-a-bitches," "g--damn"), to say nothing of the general coarseness of the farmers' language. And so the film is faithful to the tone of Steinbeck's dialogue without literally reproducing it.

Notice also how Tom's married sister is pregnant, and her pregnancy is referred to ... but the word "pregnant" is never used. The end of the novel has her breastfeeding a starving man who's too weak to eat solid food; obviously, such a thing could not be shown, or even implied, in a movie in 1940.

The Grapes of WrathTom Joad is billed as the protagonist, but it's his mother who holds the family -- and the movie -- together. She's the emotional center. Ma Joad is played by Jane Darwell, an extraordinarily prolific character actress who won an Oscar for this performance after appearing in literally a hundred movies in the 1930s alone (including Gone with the Wind; she was Mrs. Merriwether). She made another 50-plus movies after this one, making her final appearance in Mary Poppins as the Bird Woman. Her poignant work as the careworn, resilient matriarch in The Grapes of Wrath is poignant indeed. She gets the movie's final lines -- not found in Steinbeck -- declaring that "We'll keep goin' on forever. 'Cause we're the people." Corny, but she makes it work.

The Joads' journey to California has been compared to Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt into the promised land, and includes a significant moment of crossing a river. (The Joads have a bridge to drive across, which makes it easier.) After much tribulation, they find their way to a workers' camp maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It's clean, safe, welcoming, and fair -- the promised land, indeed. The man who supervises it is kindly and soft-spoken, like St. Peter at the gates of heaven, and he bears a passing resemblance to Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose New Deal was then making him a hero to the poor and downtrodden.

What's the big deal: For as watered-down as the film is compared to the bleakness of the novel, it remains a sobering and realistic look at what was then a serious crisis in America. Few movies of that era even attempted such a depiction, let alone did it successfully, let alone were rewarded for it at the box office. The "social problem" picture had popped up here and there in the 1930s and would show up again after World War II, eventually leading to the juvenile delinquent melodramas of the 1950s. The Grapes of Wrath is a clear forerunner, establishing that a movie can address real issues without sacrificing story and entertainment value.

Further reading: Here's an essay by John Steinbeck describing the labor camps he visited in California a few years before writing The Grapes of Wrath. Fun!

Tim Dirks gives a good point-by-point analysis of the film at AMC's Film Site.

Here are contemporary reviews at The New York Times, Variety, Time magazine, and a 2002 essay by Roger Ebert.

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Eric D. Snider (website) giggles at the name "Joad."

VMAs 2018