Archive for 1940

The Grapes of Wrath

Posted in Drama with tags on March 22, 2011 by Mark Hobin

Heartbreakingly beautiful adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of a poor family of sharecroppers from Oklahoma who lose their land and must travel West in search of a better life. Set during the Great Depression, the story opens when Tom Joad returns to his family’s farm only to find it deserted. He soon learns farmers all over the area have been forced from their land by the deed holders. In a flashback we see a heartbreaking scene where a local boy is hired to drive a Caterpillar tractor right through a farmer’s home knocking it down like a house of cards. It’s a frustrating image and one that only hints at the hardships they’re about to experience.

The Grapes of Wrath is arguably the most epic film to tackle the plight of the Midwest farmer during the Dust Bowl. The script masterfully takes a complicated subject and centers the focus on the Joad family, a group we come to love and identify with. They radiate goodness and dignity. Somber and bleak, their helplessness is presented in devastating detail. When the family arrives at the first transient migrant campground for workers, the conditions they find are less than desirable: the camp is overcrowded with other starving and jobless travelers. The desperation is palpable. The brilliant cinematography recalls real depression era images of photographers like Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein. The movie’s release in 1940 was a particularly impressive document considering the Great Depression had only ended a year earlier with the advent of WWII.

Everyone in the production is memorable. Director John Ford won the Oscar for directing. So too actress, Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, the tenacious matriarch. And let’s not forget how fascinating it is to see John Carradine, patriarch of the real life acting dynasty, in his first important role as an ex-preacher who has lost his faith.  But what grounds the story is Henry Fonda’s performance as Tom Joad. Just released from prison his heartfelt performance becomes an almost mythic hero of social justice. The Grapes of Wrath is one of those films that surpasses its literary source and actually improves on the novel’s pessimistic tone. There is much despair, but there is also an uplifting feeling of hope. Tom Joad’s poetic final speech is legendary.