The Grapes Of Wrath, Hollywood With A Conscience
Successful Movies Can Also Be Art
'The Grapes of Wrath' is not a conventional film but it is indisputably a classic. It is a magnificent document of human dignity in suffering. It contains superb performances by Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell in particular and out of 7 Academy Award Nominations it won 2 Oscars, one for Best Supporting Actress (Jane Darwell) for her role as the archetypal mother figure, and Best Director (John Ford).
The Great Depression of the early 1930s was a subject that Hollywood in general tiptoed around. It wasn't deemed good entertainment value. It was largely left to other media such as the theater, novels, and photography to document the national disaster. John Steinbeck's novel, first published in 1939, was based on solid research, following dispossessed farming families from Oklahoma as they journeyed to the orchards of California in search of casual labor.
The movie is ruthless in its depiction both of the despair of the 'Okies' and the pitiless way they are treated on their long journey and the audience is left in no doubt that the plight of the Joad family is not an isolated one, but rather a microcosm of the thousands of other tenant farmers and their families, who suffered from oppression imposed by the banks, local farmers, police and vested interests.
John Ford's great success is in making such dark subject matter into great entertainment. The movie is, quite simply, magnificent. It prove that a Hollywood movie can be both a social document and a work of art.
Basic Story Line
A Simple Tale Told Well
'The Grapes of Wrath' tells a deceptively simple tale and tells it well. It relates the story of one representative group of 'Okies', the Joads, a sharecropping family evicted from their homestead by a combination of harsh droughts and shark-like bankers. There are eight at the start of the journey as they set off in an old wagon to travel to the 'promised land' of California to look for work but Granpa and Granma die before they reach their destination.. The movie recounts their adventures along the way and on their arrival.
Like thousands of other desparate families, they pack up everything and head West. The journey follows Highway 66. It is arduous and it soon takes its toll when weak and elderly Granpa dies. They reach various camps along the way and discover that they are crowded with other jobless travellers, as h ungry and desperate as themselves.
Living conditions were ragged for these migratory workers, sanitary facilities and housing were abysmal, and strike busters and armed guards were stationed at most transient camps. They discover that even food prices along the way are manipulated by greedy farmers and that any work they can get is underpaid.
Tom gets involved in an underground strike movement and kills a guard. the family manage to make their escape without Tom being arrested and they make it to the next camp. When they finally arrive at their destination in the 'Golden State', they discover the same prejudices and hatreds that they had left behind.
Tom changes on the journey and becomes very involved in the social problems he has witnessed on the road and in the various camps. In a moving speech he describes how he will make it his mission in the world to fight for social reform. He goes off to seek a new world, and leaves his family in order to join the movement committed to social justice.
The film's moral strength lies in the determination and courage of the family members, exemplified by the son, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) and the matriarch (Jane Darnell) as they refuse to be beaten by their appalling treatment.
Main Cast List
Henry Fonda as Tom Joad
One of the cinema's best known and successful actors, Henry Fonda made over 100 films in a career of close to 50 years. Most often in association with director John Ford, he starred in many of the finest films of Hollywood's golden age. Born May 16, 1905, in Grand Island, NE, he won his first Best Actor Oscar for 'On Golden Pond' in 1981. The award was presented in absentia to his daughter, Jane Fonda, only two months before his death.
Named the #6 greatest actor on The 50 Greatest Screen Legends by the American Film Institute. His performance as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) is ranked #51 on Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Performances of All Time.
Jane Darwell as Ma Joad
She was born in 1879 and by the end of her career she had appeared in more than 170 films, including Huckleberry Finn (1931), and Gone With The Wind (1939), and she received the Best Supporting Actress Award for her portrayal of Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. Not a natural beauty, she was usually cast in a mother, aunt or housekeeper role. She appeared in no less than 6 Shirley Temple movies as a grandmother or housekeeper. Her last movie appearance was in Walt Disney's 'Mary Poppins' in 1964. She died in 1967, aged 87.
John Carradine as Casy
A versatile performer who entered acting in 1923 after training as a painter and sculptor. He came to Hollywood at the start of the Talkies and was immediately recognised as a consummate professional. After many walk-on minor roles his first major role was in John Ford's Prisoner of Shark Island (1936) and he also played the gentleman gambler in Stagecoach (1939). Father of 4 actor sons, he died in 1988.
Russell Simpson as Pa Joad
Born in 1880 in San Francisco, Russell Simpson settled upon an acting career after first being a gold prospector in Alaska. After a spell on Broadway he made many appearances in silent movies. He appeared in hundreds of films over a 40 year period and practiclly made a career of playing gnarled old frontiersmen. He successfully made the transition to TV with roles on "The Lone Ranger" (1949) and "Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok" (1951) to his credit. He died in 1959.
Henry Fonda Resources
- Henry Fonda Biography
Henry Fonda Biography on Hollywood's Golden Age
Charley Grapewin as Grandpa Joad
Dorris Bowdon as Rose-of-Sharon Rivers
O.Z. Whitehead as Al Joad
John Qualen as Muley Graves
Eddie Quillan as Connie Rivers
Zeffie Tilbury as Grandma Joad
Frank Sully as Noah Joad
Frank Darien as Uncle John Joad
Darryl Hickman as Winfield Joad
Shirley Mills as Ruthie Joad
Roger Imhof as Mr. Thomas, ditch employer
Grant Mitchell as Manager, government camp
Charles D. Brown as Wilkie, boy lookout at dance
John Arledge as Davis, bulldozer driver
Ward Bond as Friendly Policeman, Bakersfield
A Classic Work of Art
There is no doubt that The Grapes of Wrath is one of Hollywood's greatest ever movies. It was made only a few years after the scenes it was depicting and the traumatic events were still fresh in the minds of the moviegoing public.
Not every director could have made the finely balanced movie which came out. John Ford dealt sensitively with the plight of the migrant families and did not stint on showing the brutality and callousness of some of their fellow Americans.
He made the inspired choice of Greg Toland as cameraman. Toland was to become famous the following year for his work on Citizen Kane with Orson Welles, but for Ford he captured brilliantly the documentary look of the pictures that had been taken of the dustbowl tragedy by government-employed photographers such as Dorothea Lange. Nowhere is this better seen than in a sequence where the Joads drive into a squatters camp, the camera dwelling on the grim faces of the occupants and on the run-down shacks where they live.
Although the movie does not shirk from showing the full enormity of its subjects' plight, there is a significant departure from the novel. In Steinbeck's book the Joads first find easier conditions in a government-run camp, but things get worse and by the end are reduced to starvation wages. In the film, they find the government camp much later on, thus making their progress an upward curve. This change was important and enabled what had been a tragic film to end on an upbeat note, marked by Ma's final speech: 'We're the people...We'll go on forever.'
The film was a success commercially, it was popular with audiences everywhere and it successfully drove home an essentially left wing political message.
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