By Nick Maylor
Many Americans were not living the dream during the 1930’s, aside from the massive economic hardships suffered due to the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl forced countless American families living in the Plain states to relocate, many of them to California. It was a mass exodus that saw nearly 3.5 million people relocate due to massive drought and dust storms that rendered farmland desolate. Humans hadn’t come to understand the long-term effects of deep plowing and industrialized farming enough to see the calamity coming. After destroying many grasslands by transforming the massive amounts of land used for farming, mother nature slapped back by rendering millions of acres desolate. Widespread drought and constant dust storms had a colossal impact on those living on the Great Plains.
In 1939, The Grapes of Wrath was published by John Steinbeck. The book tells the story of the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home due to the above-mentioned hardships. The story follows them on their long journey to California in hope of better economic opportunities. A film adaptation directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda was released in 1940.
Fonda plays Tom Joad, a man recently released from prison who is hitchhiking back to his family’s Oklahoma farm. On his journey he encounters Jim Casy (John Carradine), a man Tom recognizes as the preacher who baptized him. The now vagrant Jim informs Tom that he has “lost the spirit” and is no longer a preacher.
The two journey to Tom’s family farm only to find it completely deserted aside from Muley Graves (John Qualen) who tells them about how farmers all over the area have had their land repossessed by the banks due to the land not bringing forth enough crops to remain economically viable. In turn, families have uprooted for the coast in search of work.
Tom catches up with his family on his uncle’s farm the day before they themselves are scheduled to head west towards California. With Jim Casy joining them, the Joads pack everything into a dilapidated 1926 Hudson “Super Six” sedan adapted to serve as a truck in order to make the long journey. Although it is a violation of Tom’s parole, he decides to leave Oklahoma with his family.
The trip along Route 66 is arduous, to say the least. The journey’s troubles start early on when Grandpa (Charles Grapewin) dies. The family buries him with a family Bible and a hand-written note explaining who he was, hoping that anyone who discovers the body would not think it was due to criminal circumstances.
The group’s optimism (what’s left of it) is challenged after they stop at a camp where they meet a migrant at a camp. The man speaks horrifically about his experiences in the west and the haunting tale immediately causes the group of people listening to disperse for the night.
Before arriving at their final destination in California, Grandma (Zeffie Tilbury), the son Noah (Frank Sully) and son-in-law Connie (Eddie Quillan) also leave the family group.
The hardships suffered by the family are Earth-shattering. Giving up their home and everything they know, they put it all on the line out of desperation, trying to hold on to a glimmer of hope that they will truly reach the “promised land” of California. Imagine how hard their spirits brake when that last glimmer of hope seems to be fading. Perhaps they won’t make it. Perhaps it won’t be the paradise they envisioned.
And yet they endure…
The Grapes of Wrath is excellently shot by master director John Ford, who won the Academy Award for Best Director for his efforts. The movie paints an honest picture America during a very dark time. It shows people at their most desperate, yet they endure. Despite the social pressures of the time and the societal stresses that can turn anyone cold and fearful, there are great moments in the film that show the perseverance of the human spirit, not just with the Joad family, but with strangers helping one another in desperate times. It is a powerful statement about hope and optimism.
The film benefits greatly from exceptional cast. Henry Fonda is perfect in the role of Tom Joad and everyone around him only enhances his performance. Right off the bat, we are introduced to John Carradine’s Jim Casy, a fallen preacher who is enthralling to watch. We immediately want to know everything about him, as if he could tell us the story of America’s hardships and encompass every citizen’s story within himself. Even though he is no longer a preacher, it is not because he’s lost faith, merely because he doesn’t consider himself worthy of the post. The Grapes of Wrath is populated by great characters who we want to know more about. Jane Darwell is sublime as Ma Joad, being the glue that holds the large family together. The strongest member of the family, she puts forth everything within herself to keep the family together. In such hard times, it seems like it could be easy, even tempting to lose hope. Having someone like Ma Joad around would be the greatest blessing. Not just that she wouldn’t let you give up, but looking into her eyes alone would make you believe that continuing to fight truly is worthy. Darwell went on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Ma Joad. Charles Grapewin steals each of his few scenes as Grandpa, delivering a charming and moving performance that is also humourous.
Henry Fonda delivers a great speech about the people being one and that as long as someone is fighting injustice, though he may not be there physically, he always will spiritually. It is considered one of the greatest monologues in cinematic history.
Many argue that Fonda should have won the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Aside from winning the Oscars for Best Director and Best Supporting Actress, The Grapes of Wrath was nominated for Best Actor (Fonda), Best Film Editing, Best Sound Recording, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture.
In 1989, The Grapes of Wrath (1940) was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Nick is an actor/writer/comedian/musician from Hamilton, ON Canada. Having been a film nut since the early days of his life, Nick has had an obsession with cinema and popular entertainment. Nick has written for thecinemaholic.com and is currently working on a book about the American Cinema Renaissance (1967-present) with John H. Foote. Nick met John when studying acting at the Toronto Film School, for which John H. Foote was director and Film History professor. The two have been arguing ever since.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickMaylor