IMDB #173 The Grapes Of Wrath

New Rule: I have to write this little intro part before I watch the film, or do any research! So when it's a film I haven't seen (like 1940's The Grapes Of Wrath), we get to fly blind up here.

I also haven't read the much-ballyhooed Steinbeck novel that today's entry is adapted from. I always sort of assumed it was about giant, lab-grown grapes that gain sentience and then turn on their masters. Will my hopes be dashed? READ ON to find out!

The Key Players:

Remember John Ford? Today he will prove to us that he can do more than say "Hey John Wayne, look stoic for a while and then call somebody "Pilgrim." Action!"

Star Henry Fonda would use this role as a springboard to many memorable turns that we will see in the top 100 (Once Upon A Time In The West, 12 Angry Men). The cast is stuffed with many other, less notable actors (the only name that jumped out was John Carradine's- though mostly he's known for starting a Hollywood dynasty of acting children (much like Fonda would)).

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The Story:

Tom Joad (Fonda) returns from 4 years in prison (for what he terms "HOME-I-CIDE" in a bar brawl) to find his family home deserted. Turns out the Dust Bowl's been leading various landholders to kick all the sharecroppers out on their asses.

He finds his extended family (including various siblings, his parents, and his grandparents) preparing to leave for California in a comically over-laden jalopy. He and a local ex-preacher, Casy (Carradine), hop in the back for the ride.

After Route 66 leads them through several states (and they lose both grandparents along the way), they find California as desolate and jobless as Oklahoma, initially- they stop in a camp outside of town for the night.

Then some slickster in a fancy hat offers work in Tavarez county, with a crooked local cop to haul in anyone who points out that his terms are unfair- this leads to a dustup in which a bystander gets shot and Casy arrested.

The family flees the camp, and a passing motorist tells them of work picking peaches at the Keene ranch. Turns out the work is strike-breaking, as they pass through a ring of itinerant strikers, with Casey among them as a recently adopted figurehead of sorts. But a posse shows up and clubs Casy to death- without thinking Tom kills one in return, and the family hides him in the back of the jalopy and steals away again.

But hey, they stumble onto a peaceful, Dept. of Agriculture camp that has plumbing, organized sanitation- even dancing! Will they live out idyllic days in this state-sponsored commune, or will the long arm of "The Man" catch up with Tom at last?

The Artistry:

The Grapes Of Wrath has a lot going for it, as long, epic-type films go. Cinematographer Greg Toland (who would later sling lenses for The Best Years Of Our Lives) has lots of fun with highway vistas, swirling dust, and shadows cast over nefarious night deeds. The cast all seems game, even the many, many extras playing other job-seekers.

But there's really one man who's called this all to order, and that man is pure Steinbeck! The plot, already plodding along at a novular pace, slows down frequently for stagy monologues about common folk and honest work. The characters are pretty clear ciphers, to the point of annoying caricature (especially the damn grandparents- he's a hammy toothless old man if there ever was one, and later, when the grandma is on her deathbed, she wistfully moans "Grandpa...grandpa!" as if EVEN SHE did not know his actual name!).

Even Tom Joad, ably embodied by the super-young Fonda, doesn't really have that much depth until the very end.

Maybe it would help if I read the book- there's clearly a lot of subtext here that no film would have the time to cover. I enjoyed the way Casy, for example, has a serene look on his face when he's arrested for hitting the cop- clearly he was looking forward to the free room and board (though they just ran him out of town instead). And my favorite part in the whole film was probably when the campers diffused a pre-planned riot that the cops were going to use as an excuse to raid those suspected "reds."

But gosh it takes a while to get there.


The cops sure come a'lookin' for Tom, but he steals away by night before they can get a warrant. When his ma asks him what he'll do, he vows (in a vague, not-yet-planned-out way) to watch out for the little man. His speech is one of the foremost (if not the earliest) of the "Wherever there's [EXAMPLE OF INJUSTICE]...I'll be there" variety.

The family soon moves on, south for cotton-pickin' season, and Ma Joad speculates on how much tougher working-folk are than rich folk, and how the hard life keeps them from going soft and dying out.


Overall: Should It Be Higher, Lower?

I can't say I found it that moving- deference to the book and all, but it just sort of shambles about- cursory online reading tells me the ending of the novel is significantly different (and darker), perhaps explaining why the novel is the first thing that springs to mind when you hear the title, not the film (as opposed to, say, The Wizard Of Oz or something).

The Legacy:

Ford and Ma Joad actress Jane Darwell would win Oscars for their efforts (out of 7 nominations), it's made the NFR of course, and it's been a seminal enough version to prevent anyone else from attempting another one (unlike the 1939 Of Mice And Men).

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

We're pretty much forced to go with Fonda's speech about all the improbable places he'll manage to be at once from the end. Though make sure you watch the trailer up there as well, if only for the way it portrays the frantic demand for Steinbeck's book as a way of hyping the film.

Coming Up...

172. Twelve Monkeys

171. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels

170. V For Vendetta

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