Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

In preparation for viewing the next entry in the Fox DVD collection, The Grapes of Wrath, I went back and read the John Steinbeck classic on which the film is based. I loosely skimmed it back in high school, certainly with no more than perfunctory rote (I probably crammed it in order to write a most-likely lame-O term paper). But now, visiting it again, and a certainly more mature point in my life, I savored it. It transcends its collective conception as being a stodgy, “important” work to become a living, breathing, exciting story, engaging for its nearly 500-page count. But beyond that, it’s an important book. No not important like a term-paper prerequisite; it’s an angry, unnerving book, showing us the ugly injustice that every so often rears its ugly head in our nation’s woefully checkered history. It’s a vital, invigorating narrative that matches its anger for the social malaise it depicts with a lump-in-the-throat hope: a reminder that systemic obstacles can be overcome so long as everyday, ordinary folk work together – families, friends, strangers – to achieve prosperity.

Now this is a film review, so I won’t get too much into the book, but I would like to explore just how Steinbeck does this. The author is famed for his simple, spare prose, but he also uses detail, expertly, to convey his message. Tom Joad, one of the male members of the large Joad family, returns home from prison a parolee, convicted for murder (self-defense), only to find his homestead razed and sharecropping family gone. He later learns of their eviction by the landowning banks, eager to develop the land themselves when years of Dust Bowl family kept the farm from turning a profit.

And Steinbeck somehow does a masterful job of conveying to the reader the despair that the Joads, along with their destitute counterparts, must enduring all along their 1,000-mile trek from Oklahoma to the so-called Promised Land of California. He explains, specifically, how the Golden State farmers exploit the then-unregulated system by sending bills out to thousands of starving migrants, withholding their pay amount so they can pull a bait-and-switch. He describes the pain and humiliation Ma Joad must endure when she has to buy a dollar’s worth of groceries from the farmer’s marked-up food store. And every few chapters or so, Steinbeck adopts the voice of an unnamed, third-person narrator, a Greek Chorus of sorts, observing, in a stream-of-consciousness style, the economic status-quo of the times, and how its rigged system can keep the poor from buying a serviceable automobile, or have a fighting chance against landowners, or can even organize labor groups lest they be marked “Reds” and risk imprisonment.

I dwell so heavily on the book because the film is able to replicate so many of the book’s theme’s, despite its operating in a wholly different medium. Director John Ford’s decidedly sober tone, combined with cinematographer Greg Toland’s spare but beautiful B&W photography retains the somber mood that so characterized the book. There’s almost no score, and scenes are played out lengthily, with dialogue taking its time to build dramatic energy. At its heart, of course, is Henry Fonda, in his greatest role. No other actor could’ve played the role with such earnestness, and seeing it now with the hindsight knowledge of all his social activism only underscores the potency of the performance. And of course, that scene, coming near the end in which a now-marked Tom must flee the family, is just as emotional as its notoriety suggests. “Wherever people are hungry, I’ll be there…” and somehow Fonda makes it work, delivering it not as trite tripe but as a speech a honest-to-goodness good man would deliver. It’s a masterwork within a masterwork.

Only a few changes were made in the transfer from page to screen. The biggest involves the last act of the film – in the book, the Joads first arrive an idyllic government camp, where they thwart of group of local cops from staging a riot and busting them up. The film moves that to the end of the film, excising Steinbeck’s decidedly less-cheery climax in which the Joads narrowly escape getting flooded out; their daughter-in-law, Rosasharn, suffers a miscarriage; and the prospect of work is yet again troublesomely unknown. (I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the very last scene, in which Rosasharn breast-feeds a starving boy, would never make the Hayes Code-enforced cut).

But beyond that, the film manages to attain the ultra-rare feat of being just as good as its source material, and that’s mainly because Steinbeck’s primary theme, that if there’s anything worse than economic depression it’s the way humans treat each other during such trying times, is left fully intact. It’s a theme that can be well dramatized, and with Ford’s knack for character development and setting exposition, it is.

And then there’s another important theme – that the endurance of people working together can overcome the forces which oppress them – and that’s equally well-expressed.

For me, that expression is best represented by a single scene about halfway through. Grandpa Joad enters a truck stop and requests a loaf of broad, which the proprietor sells begrudgingly (it’s ‘old bread,’ he rationalizes). On the way out, the kids want candy; Grandpa asks the price and informs him they’re two for a penny – sold! A customer calls her out: “They’re a nickel apiece!” “So what if they are?” she responds. On the way out, that customer refuses his change. “You don’t want your change?” she asks. “So what if I don’t!” as he walks out the door.

Charity begets charity, just as greed begets greed. The same forces which enable bad can work for good. It’s that elemental concept, beyond the Dust Bowl and Socialism, which realizes The Grapes of Wrath, both book and film, as a work for the ages.

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