The Grapes of Wrath (1940) Director: John Ford
“Maybe it’s like Casy says. A fella ain’t got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul. The one big soul that belongs to everybody.”
The Grapes of Wrath is one of those rare films that captures much of the spirit and essence of its parent novel. Apparently, producer Darryl Zanuck quickly acquired the film rights when Steinbeck’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book became a surprise-smash hit success. It also helped that the novel had caused massive controversy owing to its sympathetic portrait of the migrant “Okies” emigrating to California in the ’30s, as well as its harsh rebuke of California farming and labor practices. All the attention would bode well for 20th Century Fox. The director of choice was the great John Ford who hurriedly cobbled together the picture into a now classic film. Ford was fresh off the heels of his 1939 masterpiece, Stagecoach. Cinematographer Gregg Toland (later of Citizen Kane fame the following year) delivers a remarkable aesthetic -from dusty roads and camps, to cool nights under the stars and in abandoned homes. The film was nominated for several Oscars including Best Picture (which it lost to Hitchcock’s Rebecca) and Best Director (which John Ford won).
The story follows the Joad family from their roots as tenant farmers in Salisaw, Oklahoma until they are evicted amidst the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. They travel west in their jalopy along Route 66 until they arrive in the San Joaquin Valley of California only to find thousands of other “Okies” just like themselves. They are horribly treated at every turn. Jim Casy, a former preacher, joins them on the road. The central tension that pervades throughout the story is Tom Joad (played by Henry Fonda) and his status as a parolee. At the beginning of the film we see him walking down the road in a beautiful vast open shot. He has recently been released from prison and thus cannot cross state lines, however he decides to head to California with his family anyway and he gets into various scuffles with ruffians in the migrant camps until he is forced to flee at the end. He says goodbye to his Ma (played by Jane Darwell who delivers a magnificent performance for which she won an Oscar).
The film closes on a happier note than the book -the Joads end up in a superior government camp, and Tom’s younger sister does not actually breastfeed a starving compatriot as she does in the novel. Tom Joad ends up following in his friend Jim Casy’s footsteps by becoming a union man. In one of the more powerful and touching scenes, Tom Joad says goodbye to his mother shortly before he runs away into the night. He echoes these now famous words (made more famous as Bruce Springsteen lyrics):
“I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere. 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.”