Friday, February 7, 2014

The Grapes of Wrath


THE GRAPES OF WRATH        B                 
USA  (129 mi)  1940  d:  John Ford 

Clarksville and Ozark and Van Buren and Fort Smith on 64, and there’s an end of Arkansas. And all the roads into Oklahoma City, 66 down from Tulsa, 270 up from McAlester. 81 from Wichita Falls south, from Enid north. Edmond, McLoud, Purcell. 66 out of Oklahoma City; El Reno and Clinton, going west on 66. Hydro, Elk City and Texola; and there’s an end to Oklahoma. 66 across the panhandle of Texas. Shamrock and McLean, Conway and Amarillo, the yellow. Wildorado and Vega and Boise, and there’s an end of Texas. Tucumcari and Santa Rosa and into the New Mexico mountains to Albuquerque, where the road comes down from Santa Fe. Then down the gorged Rio Grande to Los Lunas and west again on 66 to Gallup, and there’s the border of New Mexico.

And now the high mountains. Holbrook and Winslow and Flagstaff in the high mountains of Arizona. Then the great plateau rolling like a ground swell. Ashfork and Kingman and stone mountains again, where water must be hauled and sold. Then out of the broken sun-rotted mountains of Arizona to the Colorado, with green reeds on its banks, and that’s the end of Arizona. There’s California just over the river, and a pretty town to start it. Needles, on the river. But the river is a stranger in this place. Up from Needles and over a burned range, and there’s the desert. And 66 goes on over the terrible desert, where the distance shimmers and the black center mountains hang unbearably in the distance. At last there’s Barstow, and more desert until at last the mountains rise up again, the good mountains, and 66 winds through them. Then suddenly a pass, and below the beautiful valley, below orchards and vineyards and little houses, and in the distance a city. And, oh, my God, it’s over.

—John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939

The definitive work of the Great Depression, John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel is one of those rare books that was the best selling book of the year while also winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1940, which along with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, may well be the most thoroughly discussed and best analyzed books currently being taught in American classrooms.  It immediately captured the nation’s attention, becoming a lynchpin of cultural history and also one of the most beloved novels of American literature.  Steinbeck was a California writer who grew up in the Salinas Valley, where he wrote a series of seven articles about migrant worker communities for The San Francisco Chronicle, as tens of thousands of Americans were migrating to California during the Dust Bowl era of the mid 30’s, where Steinbeck spent time getting to know families living in the various migrant worker camps.  Infuriated by the amount of inhumane suffering he witnessed, he turned his disgust into a novel, which from the outset was controversial, showing unmitigated sympathy for the plight of the poor by exposing the cruel aspects of capitalism, which lead to a backlash against the author close to home, where the Associated Farmers of California denounced the book as a “pack of lies,” and labeled it “communist propaganda.”  Actually, the novel is to a large degree an outraged response to a government ideology of fear steeped in the paranoia of red scares, where immigrants and outsiders are deemed unpatriotic, where government propaganda demonizes and marginalizes unions out of greed and indifference.  This “realist” aspect of the novel is only hinted at in the movie, which was seen as an Oscar hopeful, so Hollywood could not present a supposedly true story about the government in this light.  It’s also interesting to note that at this stage in his career, director John Ford (who won the Academy Award for Best Director) was a leftist, describing himself in 1937 as “a definite Socialist Democrat, always left,” supporting liberal causes of the 30’s, such as the Hollywood Anti-Nazi league, and sent money to the anti-Franco, anti-fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War, while also becoming one of the founding members of the Screen Director’s Guild, a union that was extremely unpopular with studio executives.  Ford aimed to reproduce the Depression era style of photographers like Oklahoma-born Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Margaret Bourke-White, and New Deal U.S. Resettlement Administration, government-produced documentaries like THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS (1936), becoming one of the first films selected to be in the National Film Registry in 1989. 

Twentieth Century Fox producer Daryl Zanuck, who purchased the rights to the book, actually hired a detective agency to investigate the migrant labor camps in California to see if the conditions were as bad as Steinbeck claimed in the book, and to no one’s surprise the agency reported back to Zanuck that the conditions were actually worse than what was portrayed in the novel, where Eleanor Roosevelt took it seriously enough that she called for congressional hearings on migrant labor camp conditions.  Zanuck then gave Ford free reign to make the film as brutally realistic as he could.  One assumes Ford took this project very seriously by his approach to the visual style, hiring Hollywood’s best cinematographer, Gregg Toland (who wasn’t even nominated for an Academy Award), who the following year filmed Orson Welles’ legendary masterwork CITIZEN KANE (1941), and incredibly the production was completed just 6 months after the book was originally published.  Set during the Great Depression, the story follows the Joads, a poor Oklahoma family of sharecroppers in the early 30’s who must move as the bank is kicking all the tenant farmers off their land, claiming dire circumstances brought on by Dust Bowl drought and economic hardship.  Along with literally thousands of other Okies who are in the exact same predicament, they migrate West to California, where they hear jobs are plentiful.  While Steinbeck alternates chapters describing the land, the people and their hardships, painting a picture touching on all the things the country was going through with the story of the Joad family, focusing upon their epic journey West, where part of the beauty of the book is a fascination with all the places they traveled through and certainly the wonderfully descriptive language:

The concrete highway was edged with a mat of tangled, broken, dry grass, and the grass heads were heavy with oat beards to catch on a dog’s coat, and foxtails to tangle in a horse’s fetlocks, and clover burrs to fasten in sheep’s wool.

The first part of the film version accurately follows the book, with the dialogue almost intact from the page, though instead of joining up with other families, the Joads remain on their own and arrive in California more quickly, while the second half veers into different territory, creating a more uplifting, visionary ending, as the downbeat and miserablist original ending is something that recollection suggests has never been shown on a movie screen.  A few striking observations from the outset, for such a realist drama with documentary style elements, one is surprised to see so much of the film take place in the restricted confines of a studio movie set, and minimally showcase the vast endless landscapes of the great outdoors (which surface later in Ford’s Westerns), shots that might reflect the majestic character of America, and the extraordinary beauty of the book’s language.  Instead, much of the early shots take place at night, where faces are lit like flittering ghosts when Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), just out of prison on parole after killing a man in a barroom brawl, discovers his family has left their homestead, and instead finds Muley (John Qualan) and former preacher Casy (John Carradine) on the premises, where they’re seen talking by candlelight.  Despite the impressive cinematography, what stands out is the artificiality rendered in these early shots, where there’s little hint of realism, while the repeated orchestral refrains of “The Red River Valley” only grow monotonous.  Even more surprising is the exaggerated and wildly uneven sense of caricature from all the actors involved with the exception of Fonda as Tom Joad, who is one of the great characters of literature, and one of the great portrayals in American film as well, as this is arguably Fonda’s greatest performance, especially since Tom is a flawed individual with such a checkered past.  His Midwest, folksy inflection literally breathes authenticity into these lines of such a plain speaking man, making the iconic character come to life, becoming synonymous with fair play and social justice, as he always defends the principles of small town morality, where rewards are based upon honesty and hard work, where no man is better than any other.  “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.”     

As they cross the country among the legions of others, this sense of ordinary human decency is on display in a local restaurant when the owner and waitress give Pa Joad a break on the prices for a loaf of bread and a few pieces of candy, where their kindness represents the generous spirit of those who willingly help others in a time of need.  By the time they get to California, however, the ultimate conflict of the film is the violation of those simple American principles, where the Joad family symbolizes the casualties of the Depression, where the openhearted kindness of the Joads runs up against heartless authorities of the bank, but also includes the police and their paid deputies who represent the farm interests, where neighborhood trust is replaced by suspicion and blunt force.  Our first look at one of the destitute migrant camps still leaves a picture in our heads long afterwards, and it’s one of the best shots in the film, showing hordes of people living in squalor, passing by crowds of people that literally give them cold, haunting stares, vividly expressing the fear of not knowing where your next meal is coming from, and reveals the extent of the cruel labor exploitation, as there is an oversupply of workers who are forced to work for next to nothing, and anyone who tries to organize or warn workers of the potential hazards of quick wage cuts has to answer to rogue deputies with guns and nightsticks.  At one point, they’re led in secret, under police escort, into a fenced-in and locked living compound at a peach orchard, where they’re not told the circumstances but immediately ordered to work, forced to buy food supplies at the inflated prices of the company store, where without realizing it, they’re actually strikebreakers filling in at half the wages of the striking workers.  Things only go from bad to worse, where Tom’s friend Casy is murdered right before his eyes, where he wants to strike back, but its clear California doesn’t want this influx of migrant workers, where law enforcement seems determined to drive these unwanted “outsiders” into slave wages and servitude.  Pitted against these brutally deteriorating conditions, Tom Joad becomes a symbol, an identifiable everyman character who must rise up and stand against this enveloping madness, personifying a desperate hope for people who struggle, becoming a clarion call for economic justice, embodying the spirit for social justice that will live on for generations to come, as if that is our patriotic duty.  In the film, however, it’s Ma Joad (Jane Darwell, winner of Best Supporting Actress) who has the last word, voicing an uplifting, anthem-like vision of a new day ahead, led by a “We the people” reference to our nation’s founding principles.

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