Friday, September 3, 2010

Where the grapes of wrath are stored

"I think any young man or any man who isn't angry at one time or another is a waste of time. No, no. Anger is a symbol of thought and evaluation and reaction: without it what have we got?"

- John Steinbeck

Recently I've been captured anew by John Ford's 1940 film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. If the Hollywood studio system needed any justification, the fact that it could produce a motion picture like this one is justification enough. Much credit goes to 20th Century Fox Studios chief Darryl Zanuck. Even though Zanuck was an anti-labor Republican he had the artistic integrity to let Ford and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson make a film that was true to the spirit and sensibilities of the novel. It's actually astonishing that a movie this controversial and overtly political emerged at that time.

Steinbeck was clearly a man of the left, though he took flak from some for not being radical enough. By all accounts he had nothing but good things to say about Hollywood's treatment of his work. When watching the movie later on in the 50s he remarked that it made him believe in the book all over again. Ford's politics were a complicated mix of conservative and liberal, but he always had a soft spot for the underdog and the common folk. If I had to label Ford I'd call him a bleeding-heart conservative.

Of course, some of the content of the novel was too shocking to put on film, and the economic and political messages were somewhat watered down. Not only that, the arc of the novel -- ending on a pessimistic note -- was turned around to give the movie version a more upbeat (Hollywood?) ending. This is forgiveable though, since it allowed Ma Joad -- played memorably by Jane Darwell -- to deliver one of the great uplifting closing lines in American cinema history. "We'll go on forever, Pa, 'cause we're the people!" It gives me goose bumps every time.

Even with some of the hard edges smoothed off Steinbeck's prose, the movie has a visceral power thanks to the stellar acting and Ford's impeccable direction. The Grapes of Wrath unfolds as one pitch-perfect scene after another. There's nary a false step. Henry Fonda's Tom Joad is one of a handful of big-screen performances worthy of the adjective iconic. Darwell won a well-deserved Oscar as the matriarch who keeps the family moving forward on their exodus to a hoped-for promised land. Her scenes with Fonda are the dramatic and spiritual center of the film. John Carradine, as disillusioned ex-preacher John Casy, almost manages to upstage Fonda with his laconic delivery and eccentric mannerisms. Some of the finest character actors of Hollywood's "Golden Age" show up in smaller roles e.g., Charley Grapewin and Ford favorite Ward Bond.

What the acting and directing couldn't do to adequately convey Steinbeck's lacerating vision of human struggle against injustice was accomplished through Gregg Toland's cinematography. Toland would achieve legendary status a year later by shooting a little film called Citizen Kane, but his work here is no less impressive. He and Ford achieve a stark visual style that often conveys more than words would have been able to do. In addition, they modeled the film's look on the Depression-era photos of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange which gives it a documentary-like quality. What the Italian neorealists would do after the war, Ford and Toland were doing in 1939.

Here are two examples of Lange's photography. . .

And some stills from the film. . .

Tom Joad is a fascinating protagonist. If anything, Fonda's characterization makes him more memorable in the movie. When we first meet Tom he seems like a conventional angry young man. He's a wiseacre with a chip on his shoulder and not very likeable. He's more like the solipsistic characters later glamorized by James Dean than a humanitarian crusader. But the example of Casy's Christlike sacrifice, as well as a growing power of observation, transforms Tom into a rebel with a cause. By the time of his famous farewell to Ma he's come to see his destiny as bound up with the downtrodden everywhere. The story of the Joad family is a microcosm of the larger American story. It's a story of change and movement -- movements of adventurers, settlers and migrants looking for a better life. The Grapes of Wrath celebrates some of the people who paid the price on the road of progress, and invites us to channel the spirit of Tom Joad in the continuing struggle for liberty and justice for all.

Wherever you can look - 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 raise and livin' in the houses they build - I'll be there, too.

1 comment:

Randy said...

Outstanding, Steve, as always. You need to do this for a living.