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TNR Film Classic: 'The Grapes of Wrath' (1940)

Show for the People

The word that comes in most handily for The Grapes of Wrath is magnificent. Movies will probably go on improving and broadening themselves; but in any event, The Grapes of Wrath is the most mature picture story that has ever been made, in feeling, in purpose, and in the use of the medium. You can drag out classics (it is often safer not to go back and see them) and you can roll off names in different tongues and times. But this is a best that has no very near comparison to date.

I still don’t know how they did it, though its possibility has been latent in Hollywood for years. The story of the Joad family, with its implied story of a migration of thousands of families, is told straight, and told with the sternest care for cause and effect and the condition of society. Not only does Nunnally Johnson’s adaptation (he is also assistant producer) refuse any compromise with prettiness or the usual romantic—it actually has the good taste to leave out some incidental fireworks that Mr. Steinbeck didn’t.

Everything is there as it should be: people dispossessed and shoved around and miserably in want, the fruitgrowers and their armed thugs and snide dodges, men clubbed and the strike broken but the spirit of it living, carrying on in the people. There is no country in the world where such a film of truth could be made today—even made badly, let alone with such a smash that people pack into theatres to see it, and take it away home with them after. This is a thing not only to enjoy but to be proud about.

To get minor flaws out of the way, there was possibly too much of the partial lighting of faces that was in general so effective (it was overdone, for example, on John Carradine as Casy); the starving kids were too plump and glossy; a few of the intercut devices of transition, with road signs, overlaps, etc., were a little trick. But that’s all.

The film opens on a shot that strikes the whole mood of the piece like a chord: a half light, deep, empty space, a road stretching out of sight and a tall young man walking down it, with no other sound but his toneless approaching whistle. Then the truck, another road, the lank preacher, the deserted home and the dust blowing in the wind. Then by candlelight and with faces barely seen, the story of what happened, partly told and partly in flashbacks: the broken countryside. Then outside again, with the dust settling, and suddenly on the edge of the horizon, the lights of a car: the law. Then morning; another road and mean house, and the Joad family at breakfast. It all moves with the simplicity and perfection of a wheel across silk.

When the truck rattles out onto the highway, leaving the open door and the dust blowing forlornly in the wind, there starts a series of great sweeping outdoor shots as beautifully tuned to purpose as anything you’ve seen (possible exception of Tisse): clouds and space and the endless thrown ribbon of highway, with the truck going off and getting smaller, or coming down into the camera with growing roar and clank, or wheeling around the bend in that illusion of flight of a camera slowly panning to pick up and follow motion. Camps at night, a scene framed in low branches or the darkness around a lamp, fields rolling out in the sun, great pinnacles of rock, and back to the truck itself, and the long road.

Gregg Toland was cameraman, but surely John Ford gets a share of the credit, for he has deliberately forced his subject out into the open, and carries more of his story in long shots than most directors would dare, giving the whole picture a feeling of space and large movement. He works all the way from distances to those tight compositions of two faces, half in the dark: in the tent or the back of the truck or the cab in front (one very striking effect here, in the three set faces seen faintly in the windshield, nothing directly visible but the hand on the wheel). With nothing but the drone of the motor in low, the camera manages the whole story of the Okie camp as it moves down shack after shack, face after face, silent, hostile and defeated.

Alfred Newman scored the music, but there again it’s a good part John Ford music—which is to say almost none of the swelling theme stuff, a snatch of song here and there at night, a wheezy little parlor organ sometimes for the mother-and-son theme, and for the rest the sounds of life—particularly fine here because this life is a cough and sputter and boom of motors up and down the roads. And Ford is not afraid to let silence be eloquent as it should be, or to use it as a background for the poignant train whistle, a mile off at night, for the going-away sequence.

In the production values of costumes, sets, locations and make-up, the whole thing simply exceeds the imagination. If there is anything more poor, scuffed-out and plain no-good than these homes, trucks, clothes and every patched-up detail of equipment; or anything more real in squalor than the Okie camp, the pickers’ shacks, etc., I wouldn’t know it. Along with it, I suppose, should be put the human properties, the bit players, extras in a crowd, both the overbearing and the downtrodden—all cast and directed as carefully as stars. It suddenly strikes you that there isn’t an actor in the show who tries to be dashing or anything but plain folks.

It is Henry Fonda’s picture as far as acting goes: he has come a long way in the movies, and here (somewhat as in Abe Lincoln) he finds a lank, slow simplicity that comes up from something within him genuinely felt; it is altogether touching and never posed. Jane Darwell is next: her Ma shows an occasional trace of acting but comes out clearly on the whole, a thing of strength and homely beauty. Russell Simpson hasn’t much to do as Pa, but I think you will not forget his craggy tragic face, or that of Frank Darien; the young people are what young people should be, and Rosasharn is kept in better control than she was in the book (that bucket-of-blood scene of hers at the end is mercifully, and naturally, out, too). Parts also for Charles Grapewin, John Qualen, John Carradine and others, and they do not fail them.

This is everybody’s picture, as a matter of fact—everybody working with one of the world’s ace movie directors, which is as it should be. But credit for a lot of courage and a lot of care should go to Darryl Zanuck, who produced it in the teeth of convention and inevitable trouble. If it had turned out to be a floperoo, I tremble for Mr. Z, because those barracuda-teeth he O. K.’d for release are going to nip the tenderest parts of some of our tenderest parties. But the public is going to this picture; the non-political awarding groups will put it top of the list for 1940; and the film books of 1950 will put it down as a milestone in the art of the motion picture.

For the rest, what is there to say after 1,000 words? The picture nears its end when Henry Fonda tells Ma, even though she can’t understand it, that he is going away but she can always know where he is—wherever men are hungry, wherever their kids are in rags, wherever people don’t have the right to live and be people—and he goes off toward the train whistle, walking up the hill, a dark figure from a distance, seen against the light of the sky. And it ends as they move on down the road again in the cab of the truck, toward twenty days’ picking, and Ma snorts at the idea of her being scared. Her? She’s been scared before, she says, but she’s had it knocked out of her. We’ll go on, she says. We may get kicked but they can’t get rid of us, rich men or not; sometime they won’t scare so many of us any more, because we go on, because they can’t kill us; we’re the people.

And so the people will go to see and hear, and I hope they’ll listen to it. Because this is their show, for and by; it is more their show than any show on the face of the earth.

This article originally ran in the February 12, 1940, issue of the magazine.