The Grapes of Wrath-1940
Starring-Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell
Scott’s Review #828
Reviewed November 8, 2018
Based on the famous novel written by John Steinbeck and released only one year prior to the film, The Grapes of Wrath (1940) is a superlative offering by director John Ford, known mostly for western. The work accurately depicts life for the struggling American family during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. With gorgeous cinematography and a sad yet poignant story, the film is a must-see and a timeless depiction of the perils of life in the United States for working-class people.
Set on the vast plains of Oklahoma, the Joad family has run a successful farm and lived as a thriving family unit for decades- an extended group enjoying their lives. When the United States suffers from a depression, the Joad’s lives are turned upside down and they are forced to sell their farm. They decide to traverse the countryside in hopes of the promise of profitable jobs and wealth in far-away California. The Grapes of Wrath depicts the families journey as hardship and deaths occur.
When the film was released in 1940 many studios were not interested in bringing the story to the big screen as aspects were deemed too left-leaning for conservative types. The social issues the film delves into are still incredibly relevant today and Ford wisely dissects not only the poverty that the Joad family suffers, but the psychological trauma and ruination they must endure. What a devastating effect this must have had on families.
The casting is spot-on. A young Henry Fonda was merely an upstart actor in 1940 and successfully exudes a rich, passionate performance as Tom. Plenty of close-up shots reveal the quiet pain and desperation the young man feels and the humiliation at having lost his livelihood. Fonda shares poignant chemistry with the preacher character, Jim Casy (John Carradine), who once was filled with glory and has now lost his spirit and his belief in goodness.
Jane Darwell, a famous character-actress, gives a treasured performance as the family matriarch, Ma Joad. The actress won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, deservedly so, as she relays a haggard woman wanting only the best for her family and attempting to hold them together. Her determined final speech at the film’s conclusion is teary and meaningful as she utters, “We’re the people… We’ll go on forever.” Speaking of Oscars, Ford also won for Best Director.
The film sees no age, but rather endures as a timeless journey alongside the Joad family. Sticking very close to Steinbeck’s novel, the story is modified in an important way. Perhaps to please studio financiers or simply to provide a more hopeful message, the Joad’s are left with a positive future thanks to a government-run camp where they finally live. In the novel they reside at the camp first but later are ultimately reduced to starvation wages.
A monumental scene is when the family drives their battered vehicle to a squatter’s camp for needed shelter. The scene is shot documentary style with the camera focusing both on the Joad’s and on the faces of the occupants of the run-down and filthy shacks that they are forced to live in. We wonder with sadness what the lives of these unfortunate people were like before the Depression.
The Grapes of Wrath (1940) was quite the humanistic cinematic masterpiece when it was released. Forging into a new decade plagued by a terrible war and other worldly problems, it reminisced about a previous decade also fraught with different types of problems. The film is one for the ages and should be appreciated by all.
Oscar Nominations: Outstanding Production, Best Director-John Ford (won), Best Actor-Henry Ford, Best Supporting Actress-Jane Darwell (won), Best Screenplay, Best Sound Recording, Best Film Editing