THE GRAPES OF WRATH (John Ford, 1940)

Acclaimed worldwide as a masterpiece, John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath nevertheless invites a charge of impersonality. Ford, despite winning one of his six Oscars for it, was never keen on the film. Perhaps he felt hemmed in by the John Steinbeck novel on which Nunnally Johnson based the script. Also, the book’s Leftist slant may have uncomfortably chafed against his Irish conservatism, although probably more for its cheery dogmatic insistence than its political assumptions, some of which Ford in fact shared. Finally, there was Darryl F. Zanuck, the studio head, whose interference damaged the film. While unmistakably Fordian in all its major themes, the film must have seemed to Ford less his own than it should have been. Still, it is a very great work.

The Great Depression of the 1930s: in their jalopy the Joads, Oklahomans, and their extended family take off for California, the new Promised Land. Forced by circumstance, this westward trek of theirs mocks manifest destiny, the expansionist rationale on which the American nation had been built. Sharecroppers, they have been displaced by Nature and by inhuman nature—dust bowl erosion and a foreclosing bank. The odyssey of these “Okies,” and the bankruptcy of dreams that awaits them in California, form the narrative basis of both book and film.

Visually expressive, Ford’s film is way superior to the novel. The latter has passed into a kind of faded antiquity, like nearly everything else that Steinbeck wrote. Still, the book does hold some interest. Consider the form: chapters which alternate between the Joads’s fictional story and a kind of factual reportage—in the manner of prose-poems, general information about the Depression, including statistics of its impact on Americans. Like Maxwell Anderson’s verse plays, this can be viewed as one of the Left’s strained formal experiments of the day. But Ford, who had filmed Anderson’s Mary of Scotland (1936), didn’t discount Steinbeck’s cleverness, either. True enough, he and Johnson discarded the neat structure; and yet Ford retained the bifurcated content contained in it by incorporating the book’s nonfictional track—an overview of countless American families, from which the Joads (fictitiously) have been singled out—into the narrative itself.

This is variously accomplished. For instance, Ford and black-and-white cinematographer Gregg Toland, in their steely, immutably clear fictional images, evoke ’30s photographs—from the U.S. Farm Security Administration—by Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange and others, as well as the spectacle of erosional devastation captured by Ralph Steiner, Paul Ivano, Paul Strand and Leo T. Hurwitz’s cameras for Pare Lorentz’s documentary The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936), likewise underwritten by the federal government. Also, Ford has blended actual outdoor shots and in-studio “outdoor” shots, unifying them by extending to them both a subtle expressionism that ever so slightly heightens the sense of reality emanating from the screen. This, in turn, smooths the path for the different role that the Joads occupy in the film than in the book. For Steinbeck, the Joads assume a sociological role; they are stand-ins for countless real families. In the film, however, they embody the experience of a blighted nation—an epic occurrence. While at a glance this may seem to overfictionalize the narrative by applying to it a definable literary form, the result is quite the opposite. Ford’s epic treatment allows the film to combine into a single mode—really, to reconcile—the book’s alternate chapter tracks.

We loosely speak of certain films as being “epics”; usually this means that their background or subject matter is historical and the scale is generous. Ford’s film, though, is more rigorously epic, for the Joads project the aspirations and hardships of a whole people; theirs is a communal and a national experience. (For this to hold true for the book, the reader would have to be able not just to correlate but to fuse the book’s alternate tracks.) Ford here presumes an idea of nation that some may feel the United States, with its patchwork of peoples and their divisive levels of competitive success, cannot accommodate; even Ford finds the idea, while applicable, equivocal, foretelling for the nation, as for the Joads, a tragic destiny. (His most highly analytic treatment of this theme ennobles his final masterpiece, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).) Certainly the elimination of the Joads’s representative character by his epic merger of the illustrative example and the thing itself gives the film a far darker complexion than the novel possesses. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is, in fact, optimistic, even sentimentally so, given the rejuvenative Mother Earth symbolism, for example, scabrously attached to Rose of Sharon—Tom Joad’s (early-on) pregnant sister; in the film, Rosasharn—that, even had industry censorship not prohibited it, Ford could no way have adopted since his fictional/nonfictional form cannot accommodate the blatant elements that Steinbeck, in his separate, self-proclaimingly fictional track, can freely (if revoltingly) indulge. (Those familiar with the novel know to what I refer—the nursing activity of Rose of Sharon’s that Steinbeck, being Steinbeck, milks for more than it’s worth.)

In true epic fashion, Ford’s film opens in the middle of things, with young Tom Joad, freshly paroled from prison, momentarily halted in the road on his way home. (Tom killed a man in a bar fight.) In a middle-distance shot Tom proceeds screen-right. This opening recalls the closing of Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Ford’s previous film but by one, where in a ferocious, portentous storm Lincoln, played by the same tall actor now playing Tom Joad, makes a screen-right foot-journey up a hill. Thus Tom’s own brief steps (prior to hitching a ride), now across stormless flat land, obliquely echo young Abe’s, thereby linking the two characters and, in the process, investing Tom with an aura of national destiny despite his surly nature, nasty temper and criminal past. Actually, the very end of Ford’s (beautiful) Lincoln film occurs after the scene I have described, which is the film’s closing scene of fiction; following it is a stirring documentary coda consisting of shots of the Lincoln Memorial, a bulwark in the current storm of the Depression that Ford thus links to the Civil War, while on the soundtrack the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” resolutely plays. The lyrics remain unsung; but the famous line “He has trampled out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored” now also looks ahead to The Grapes of Wrath, investing Tom not only with Lincoln’s mantle but something of Christ’s as well. And why not? Like Abe and Jesus, Tom also will prove a fighter against injustice and oppression, a folk-common redresser of social wrongs.

I have said that Ford’s film begins in the middle of things; so does it end, given its proper ending, with Tom at the advent of a fresh quest. He is an outlaw again, this time for killing a civilian “cop” who has bludgeoned to death a friend of his, Casey (John Carradine, wonderful), a former preacher-turned-laborist who had been working to counter the local exploitation of homeless workers, including Tom’s family. It is vicious authority, then, that deems Tom a criminal; but Ford wholeheartedly finds him on the side of the angels, especially now that Casey’s words and example have redeemed Tom from his prior selfishness. So as not to jeopardize their own freedom by harboring a fugitive, Tom leaves parents and siblings—the last vestige of his life as he has known it—in California. We see him back on the road, this time in an eternizing long shot, walking screen-right across the horizon. Whatever in his journey on the lam he can do to help the exploited, the oppressed, the downtrodden (“. . . since I’m an outlaw already . . .”), he will do. Ford, Toland and Johnson may have devised here the most stunning conclusion of any American film.

Ford’s open-endedness underscores the enormous mission ahead for Tom; it predicts no more than occasional, and then limited, success. Right before his leavetaking, Tom’s recitation to his mother of the kinds of situations where he will “be” to help and share with others is less positive and programmatic, and infinitely more piercing, than in the book. (Echoing Woody Guthrie’s poignant Joe Hill ballad, it is also, over a half-century of work, actor Henry Fonda’s signature moment.) In the film, Tom’s self-prophecies favor the idea of him as a persevering spirit over the idea of him as a competent, nuts-and-bolts activist, whereas the novel scrupulously balances these attributes in order to predict an American upturn proceeding from Tom’s example. The novel claims, then, no tragic dimension, nor is Steinbeck, unlike Ford, susceptible to a measure of defeatism in the face of the disparity between America’s reality and myth. In the film, Tom’s solitariness—his sudden disconnection from family—seems overwhelming. A new, this time paroleless imprisonment, it is less a political opportunity, which Steinbeck reduces it to, than an endless heartache. The novel’s schematism can absorb readily the likelihood that Tom and the rest of his family will never be reunited; Ford is incapable of such complacency. His conclusion, therefore, completes a very bleak vision.

That amazing ending. Alas, Zanuck stepped in and changed it by adding a scene of his own without Ford’s consent or even knowledge, and without Johnson’s or Toland’s participation. It is something that Spielberg might have come up with: a preposterous few minutes of gooey uplift, lifted (out of sequence) from the book. (And the fix worked; despite its overall harshness, the film became, like a Betty Grable picture, a popular success for 20th Century-Fox.) In this meretricious (although, mentally, easily detachable) add-on, the Joad family minus Tom appears happier than ever—a spectacular absurdity to which even the novel doesn’t descend. Like so many other Ford films, this one trenchantly records family disintegration—and there no amount of Steinbeck’s family-of-humanity rhetoric can provide salve for the bleeding event. Indeed, Ford’s merging of the book’s two tracks helps make his film more pessimistic in yet another way, by displacing to the Joad family itself the book’s structural division, in effect, fragmentation, thus giving the theme of the disintegration of the American family—to be precise, the disintegration in America of the once immigrant family—a more critical and controlling role than it occupies in the book.

It is beside the point that it is not the Joads themselves who have emigrated in order to start over in the United States. The son of Irish immigrants, Ford illumines the cost of the Joads’s immigration at whatever generational remove. Indeed, in a Ford film any westward journey in America doubles as metaphor for emigration from “home” to America, with the added irony that one always remains in some sense homeless in America, needing always to search out a place secure from social, religious or some other form of bigotry—unless, like Ethan Edwards in Ford’s tremendous The Searchers (1956), almost as a sacrifice for others one embodies America’s tragic destiny, in Ethan’s case in the form of white American race hatred, and is thus driven to wander forever between the winds in a grotesque parody of the “manifest destiny” that immigrants and their descendants invented to justify their claims on the land. The “home” one perpetually searches for in America is, at bottom, a golden reality to match America’s great promise (one thinks here of Ford’s magnificent Wagon Master (1950), for which The Grapes of Wrath is a kind of precursor); and therefore the so-called American Dream of owning one’s own house represents an unwitting compromise, an attainable reduction, of the original, more exalted goal. The disappointment the Joads discover when they reach California, “the land of milk and honey”—the Land of Zanuck, Ford may have been thinking,—is therefore a recurrent theme in Ford’s cinema, in this instance a disappointment exacerbated by the human cost of the journey, which the deaths along the way of “Grampa” and Grandma encapsulate. In this regard, perhaps, Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) may have the final word; for there, in order to start over, find a home and activate the ideal of America, the young outlaw couple, ironically, must escape the borders of the actual, nonmythic America—a tragic suggestion that, within U.S. borders, we all must remain homeless and unfulfilled.

Ford’s merging of documentary and fiction—on one level, a reconciliation of Steinbeck’s two tracks—is also, then, a sorely ironic metaphor for the cohabitation in the States of both American reality and American myth. It is in this context that Ford’s film is most brilliant. Some of its imagery, certainly, is indelible. In one passage perfectly blending documentary and fiction, superimposed Caterpillar tractors razing homes from which tenant farmers have been evicted appear alien, as though from another planet, in order to underscore the unnaturalness of farm equipment’s use against farmers—a classic instance of withering visual irony. (This irony, incidentally, is the difference between a Ford and a Lorentz.) Later, in what may be the film’s most remarkable passage, a traveling shot into a migrant camp finds faces and forms listlessly passing before the camera; they appear worn, depleted, even ghostlike—a reflection of hopelessness among the dispossessed. These human beings seem lost souls; like the merchant ship and its crew in Ford’s poetic masterpiece from O’Neill, The Long Voyage Home (1940), made immediately after The Grapes of Wrath, they are—I am applying Matthew Arnold’s words for Victorian England—“Wandering between two worlds, one dead,/ The other powerless to be born.”

Because of its blend of documentary and fiction, Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath may be his most delicately balanced film. The balancing is precarious; a part of the blend may at any point separate out. If that happened, artifice—specifically, rhetoric—would result. Ford’s rigorous objectivity—which at its opening this piece noted invites a charge of impersonality—helps avoid this. Where the film, however, does dip into rhetoric the fault almost invariably lies with Jane Darwell’s hammy, Oscar-winning turn as Ma Joad. It is slow and studied; Darwell’s Ma seems to have read the script. The situation of her character is enormously complex. For, as a result of his losing their rented land and, along with it, his capacity to provide for himself and his family, Ma’s spouse, the family head, has become demoralized, and it’s up to Ma, an ordinary soul unused to exhibiting particular strength, to fill the place of responsibility that her husband’s shattered withdrawal has left vacant in order that they all may survive and, if possible, prevail. Working here at her hardest, Darwell is, as usual, appealing, and she has little trouble projecting Ma’s anxiety; but she has nothing like the depth of talent necessary to suggest the upheavals her character has so recently undergone. One actress who would have done a much better job is Beulah Bondi, the superlative Granny in Jean Renoir’s The Southerner (1945) and an Emmy winner more than three decades later for another country role, in The Waltons. (Bondi herself was pure city: Chicago—and later, professionally, New York.) As it happens, I didn’t just pull Bondi’s name out of a hat. Ford had, in fact, enlisted Bondi to play Ma Joad, a role she spent months researching, rehearsing and losing weight for; at the last minute, to cut production costs, though, Zanuck replaced her with Darwell, who was under contract to his studio. This much can be said: Ford used the lesser actress beautifully—as when, just prior to the family’s leavetaking, alone in their shack, Ma looks into a mirror while holding up to her ear lobes hanging earrings—baubles from among the various keepsakes Ma must leave behind not only for want of space in the family’s dying jalopy but also for want of the time necessary to nurture the memories that the keepsakes represent. This is Ford at his most moving; the strains of “Red River Valley” that accompany Ma’s crestfallen reflection abruptly stop—an aural metaphor of the scene we are witnessing and the family departure quick to follow. Memorable, too, is Ma’s dance with a clumsy Tom at a government camp, once again to the plaintive, poignant tune repeated throughout Alfred Newman’s fine score, the words to which, on this occasion, Tom sings. Great, moving filmmaking. Bondiless, Ford yet prevails.

Most of his other actors, thankfully, are up to their parts. I have already mentioned Carradine as Casey, the reformed preacher (I choose my description here to what would have been Ford’s liking). John Qualen is an equally fine Muley, an “old barnyard ghost.” Russell Simpson, as the shell of a man that Pa has become, is perfect. And in a nicely bowdlerized version of the book’s yuckiest character, Dorris Bowdon is a touching Rosasharn.

Of course, the most profound acting comes from Henry Fonda, whose Tom Joad escapes few lists of the greatest film performances of all time. (Fonda’s preparation: his splendid Eddie in Fritz Lang’s excellent You Only Live Once (1937).) How deeply moving and complex is this characterization; for Tom is insolent, embittered, selfish, loyal to family and friends, struggling to understand what’s happening to himself and others, noble, unselfish and caring at times—a tangle of human contradictions. As Fonda plays him, Tom is an Everyman precipitously poised at crossroads where (to us who watch) great decency and great viciousness seem equal possibilities. Fonda’s Tom Joad, then, is the quintessence of human possibility. After the war, Fonda’s masterful portrait of Lt. Col. Owen Thursday, loosely based on Custer, in Ford’s mind-socking Fort Apache (1948), shows, by contrast, humanity very nearly past all possibility. (In all, Ford and Fonda made seven films together, including the majesterial My Darling Clementine (1946) and the underrated The Fugitive (1947) and Mister Roberts (1955).) One of them heartrending, the other unexpectedly so, these two performances from a staggering career can remind us how cleanly Fonda could get to the marrow of the American male—here, as one who is dangerous against authority, and as another who is equally dangerous with authority. So very differently these two men behave, as on the dance floor, where Owen’s joyless military polish and correctness contrast with Tom’s heartfelt klutziness and simple pleasure. Yet, in the imaginative space that Ford and (until their falling-out) his favorite actor fill in with such precision and depth, some perplexing, elusive thread of character hints that Tom Joad and Owen Thursday are alternate possibilities of the same fractured soul, that each of them has latched onto a different way of feeling whole, useful, meaningful and at home in the United States, where for better or worse they find themselves.




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