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The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath(1940)

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teaser The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

SYNOPSIS

Economic and natural disasters have turned the farmlands of the American plains into the Dust Bowl forcing thousands of families out of their homes and onto the road West to seek any means of survival in California. One such family is the Joads, a proud but destitute lot who, against all odds, make it to the "promised land" only to find no work, no place to stay, and much prejudice, resentment, and violence against them and their fellow migrants. As they move from place to place, members of the family die off or leave, but Ma Joad struggles to hold them together with hope and determination, while her son Tom begins to perceive a new vision for humanity.

Director: John Ford
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson, based on the novel by John Steinbeck
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Editing: Robert Simpson
Art Direction: Richard Day, Mark-Lee Kirk
Music Director: Alfred Newman
Cast: Henry Fonda (Tom Joad), Jane Darwell (Ma Joad), John Carradine (Casy), Charley Grapewin (Grandpa), Dorris Bowdon (Rosasharn), Russell Simpson (Pa Joad).
BW-129m.

Why THE GRAPES OF WRATH is Essential

In his book The Fondas (Citadel, 1973), John Springer made a bold claim for The Grapes of Wrath: "The Great American Novel made one of the few enduring Great American Motion Pictures." Even accounting for film journalism hyperbole and divergent opinions about the original book and its screen adaptation, which was not always favorable, few would argue the essential truth of what he wrote. Hollywood abounds with mediocre films made from acclaimed books and wonderful films adapted from minor works of prose. Yet in The Grapes of Wrath we have that rare thing: an ideologically charged literary work of outrage and compassion, one that had tremendous public impact and was brought to the screen by a major Hollywood studio with some of the top industry talents working at their peak. The film, like the novel, also had its detractors; some argued that the movie was occasionally sentimental in treatment with its downward spiral of despair transformed into a trajectory of hope. Still, almost everyone agreed that the movie was faithful to its original source in spirit and attitude.

John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has received its share of critical drubbing in the years since. It may well not be the Great American Novel after all, yet whatever its flaws, it remains one of the most read, taught, discussed, and valued works by an American writer and an important historical document. Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century-Fox, recognized that at the time and made it his personal mission to document the social tragedy of the Dust Bowl on the screen. Part of his decision may also have been motivated by the book's controversy which was always good for generating advance publicity and interest. For starters, he enlisted John Ford, one of the most respected directors in the industry, top technicians, and a cast of mostly non-stars, character actors carefully chosen for a degree of authenticity. The one true "name" in the cast was Henry Fonda, who gave arguably the finest performance of his career, certainly one of his most iconic, emerging not only as a highly respected actor but, along with his previous film for Ford, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), as a defining American persona. Jane Darwell as Ma Joad may have been too warm and nurturing for the author's conception of the tough, wiry woman of the plains. Still, the actress gave a memorable performance and one scene in particular has become one of the movie's defining moments - the one where she bids farewell to her house and the life she is leaving behind. Silently reliving then discarding her memories alone in her bedroom, she forever captured the fear, heartbreak and ultimate strength of the American family in peril.

For all the bitter social outrage and damning leftist politics that fueled the book, it is surprising, considering the time and the circumstances, how much of that remained intact in the film. Yet, it is the Joad family that is true heart and soul of the story and even more so in the film. This was firmly Ford's intention. Emphasizing the human factor, showing ordinary people pitted against the sweep of history and the sometimes overwhelming landscape (thanks in no small part to cinematographer Gregg Toland's masterful visual approach), he created a film that, as critic Andrew Sarris has written, "was to single-handedly transform him from a storyteller of the screen to America's cinematic poet laureate." It's an important film in Ford's canon, but even more essential is its example of the collaborative process of the studio system at its best - screenwriter, director, cast and crew, and a very involved and committed producer in the service of a literary work's words and insights. Whatever case may be made against calling it "great," there's no doubt about "enduring."

by Rob Nixon

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teaser The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Famed Depression photographer Horace Bristol was asked to help with the casting of The Grapes of Wrath, which he later said was the reason many of the characters in the film resemble the real people in his photographs.

The benevolent director of the fictional government camp in the film resembles then President Franklin Roosevelt. He was in fact modeled after Tom Collins, the director of the actual camp in California on which Steinbeck's Weedpatch Camp was modeled. Steinbeck dedicated the book to him, and Collins also served as technical adviser to the film (and not the actor Tom Collins, who is sometimes mistakenly cross-referenced as the technical adviser). Collins's advice on the dress, manners, habits, speech, and culture of the migrants contributed greatly to the film's authentic feel.

In the late 1980s, Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater Company adapted Steinbeck's book for the stage, with his original tone and the famous downbeat ending intact. It also ran successfully on Broadway. Actor Gary Sinise played Tom Joad. It was adapted for public television in 1991.

A 25-hour radio reading of Steinbeck's novel was broadcast on Los Angeles radio station KPFK-FM on its 50th anniversary in 1989, featuring the voices of Carl Reiner, Kris Kristofferson, and Laraine Newman.

An opera based on the novel was co-produced in 2007 by the Minnesota Opera and Utah Symphony and Opera, with music by Ricky Ian Gordon and libretto by Michael Korie.

After seeing The Grapes of Wrath in 1940, Woody Guthrie recorded a ballad called "Tom Joad," set to a traditional American folk tune. The song, so long it had to be recorded in two parts, summarizes the plot of the book and movie, which Guthrie described as "the best cussed pitcher I ever seen."

Several other musicians have referenced Steinbeck's story in their work, including Pink Floyd, Kris Kristofferson, Rage Against the Machine, and most famously by Bruce Springsteen, who said his song and album, "The Ghost of Tom Joad," were first based on the film.

Author T.C. Boyle published a 1995 book called The Tortilla Curtain about the lives of contemporary Mexican immigrants, which he said was inspired by the effort Steinbeck made to remedy injustice in a world that hasn't changed as much as we would like to believe.

A 1959 Bugs Bunny cartoon was titled "Apes of Wrath."

"I think it is well done, but I wonder if it will convey to many people the reality of what they are seeing....I did not feel the tragedy gripped the audience. They did not seem really to know what this story actually meant." First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in her daily column after seeing the film in Florida in 1940.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

John Steinbeck was invited to a pre-release screening of The Grapes of Wrath which Darryl F. Zanuck had promised him. The author proclaimed it "a hard, straight picture in which the actors are submerged so completely that it looks and feels like a documentary film, and certainly it has a hard, truthful ring." He also said Henry Fonda's performance as Tom Joad made him "believe my own words."

Concerned about controversy, even up to the film's expected opening, Zanuck decided to premiere The Grapes of Wrath outside of California, hoping it would be more sympathetically received elsewhere. The movie opened in New York in late January 1940, to glowing reviews, in Los Angeles a month later, and then in wide release in mid-March.

For the publicity campaign, Zanuck hired noted American artist Thomas Hart Benton to illustrate the ads rather than using production stills. As one glowing review after another flooded in, Zanuck changed the ads to a series of Benton illustrations of the characters with the line, "Us Joads thank New York!"

For The Grapes of Wrath's release in Great Britain, a brief prologue was added explaining the social and historical context of the story.

Few people notice that in the film Tom's brother Noah simply vanishes from the picture after the scene of the family bathing in the river.

John Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962.

Other Steinbeck works that have been successfully adapted to film include Of Mice and Men (1939), East of Eden (1955), The Red Pony (1949), Tortilla Flat (1942), The Moon Is Down (1943), The Wayward Bus (1957), and The Winter of Our Discontent (1983, TV). The first three have been remade several times. In addition, Steinbeck has contributed to stories and scripts written directly for the screen: Lifeboat (1944), Viva Zapata! (1952).

While writing the book, Steinbeck visited Arvin Federal Government Camp near Bakersfield, portrayed as "Weedpatch Camp" in the book. The camp still exists today and is still used by migrant workers.

Henry Fonda worked with John Ford a total of nine times and on some of the finest films of Fonda's career. Although they had great respect for each other's talents, their relationship became strained during the filming of Fonda's stage hit Mister Roberts (1955), largely over Ford's abusive behavior fueled by severe alcoholism.

Screenwriter Nunnally Johnson wrote nearly 70 films in his 40-year career between 1927 and 1967, including Jesse James (1939), The Woman in the Window (1944), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), and The Dirty Dozen (1967).

Steinbeck and Johnson remained friends for life, as did the author and Henry Fonda, who read poetry at Steinbeck's funeral in 1968.

When Fonda died in 1982, Tom Joad's final speech was read at his funeral.

Frank Nugent was a highly influential critic at the New York Times. After he wrote his very favorable review of The Grapes of Wrath, Darryl Zanuck offered him three times his newspaper pay to come work for Fox. Because Nugent had at times been a severe critic of that studio's films, some people speculated Zanuck was giving him the job to buy him and prevent future bad notices, but Nugent accepted and became a script doctor for several years. When opportunities to become a producer failed to materialize, he returned to film journalism. While in Mexico to do a story about John Ford's production of The Fugitive (1947), Nugent was offered a scriptwriting job by the director. Over the next 18 years he wrote 11 films for the director (as well as occasional work for others), including Ford's critically acclaimed Western The Searchers (1956). Although they were having considerable relationship difficulties during the production of The Grapes of Wrath, writer Nunnally Johnson and actress Dorris Bowdon eventually married and remained together until his death in 1977. After appearing in the screen version of another Steinbeck novel, The Moon Is Down (1943), also adapted by her husband, she retired from acting to raise their children.

Many of the cast members of The Grapes of Wrath were from Ford's famous stock company of actors who worked with him numerous times, including John Carradine, Ward Bond, John Qualen, Russell Simpson, his brother Francis Ford, and former silent star Mae Marsh in an uncredited bit. The star of such films as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916) and once considered a successor to Lillian Gish, Marsh retired in 1918 on the eve of her marriage. When the Great Depression wiped her and her husband out financially, she returned to films and appeared in 17 Ford movies between Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964).

The youngest Joad, Winfield, was played by child actor Darryl Hickman, who has acted, produced, and written for 70 years. His younger brother Dwayne played the title role in the television comedy series Dobie Gillis.

The Grapes of Wrath was reportedly banned in the Soviet Union by Joseph Stalin because it showed that even the most destitute Americans could afford a car.

Although The Grapes of Wrath did well enough at the box office, it was not a runaway success, taking in about $1.59 million, roughly double its cost.

Memorable Quotes from THE GRAPES OF WRATH

MULEY (John Qualen): Blowin' like this year after year, blowin' the land away, blowin' the crops away. Blowin' us away now.

MULEY: You mean get off my own land?
AGENT (Adrian Morris): Now don't go blamin' me. It ain't my fault.
MULEY'S SON (Hollis Jewell): Whose fault is it?
AGENT: You know who owns the land. The Shawnee Land and Cattle Company.
MULEY: Who's the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company?
AGENT: It ain't nobody; it's a company.
MULEY'S SON: They got a president, ain't they? They got somebody who knows what a shotgun's for, ain't they?
AGENT: Now, son, it ain't his fault. Because the bank tells him what to do.
MULEY'S SON: All right, where's the bank?
AGENT: Tulsa. But what's the use pickin' on him? He ain't nothin' but the manager. And he's half crazy hisself trying to keep up with his orders from the East.
MULEY: Well, then who do we shoot?

AL (O.Z. Whitehead): Ain't you gonna look back, Ma? Give the ol' place a last look?
MA (Jane Darwell): We're going to California, ain't we? All right then let's go to California.
AL: That don't sound like you, Ma. You never was like that before.
MA: I never had my house pushed over before. Never had my family stuck out on the road. Never had to lose everything I had in life.

TOM JOAD (Henry Fonda) reading note left with the body of his grandfather: This here is William James Joad, died of a stroke, old, old man. His folks buried him because they got no money to pay for funerals. Nobody kilt him. Jus' a stroke and he died.

TOM: I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere, wherever you can look. Wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build, I'll be there, too.

MA: Well, Pa, a woman can change better'n a man. A man lives sorta, well, in jerks. Baby's born or somebody dies, and that's a jerk. He gets a farm or loses it, and that's a jerk. With a woman, it's all in one flow, like a stream, little eddies and waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it that-a way.

MA: Rich fellas come up an' they die, an' their kids ain't no good an' they die out. But we keep a'comin'. We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out; they can't lick us. We'll go on forever, Pa, 'cause we're the people.

Compiled by Rob Nixon

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teaser The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

John Steinbeck was born in 1902 in Salinas, California, a small town in a large fertile valley of the same name where, as a boy, he worked summers side by side with migrant farm and ranch hands. It gave him his first taste of the harsher side of that life. In 1925, after a brief time at Stanford University, he moved to New York with dreams of becoming a writer, but soon returned to California. Over the next decade, he began to realize his literary ambitions with stories, books, and articles that reflected the life of the region he knew best. His first major critical success came with the novel Tortilla Flat in 1935, which portrayed life among the itinerants of Monterey just after World War I. His 1937 book Of Mice and Men, about a pair of migrant farm workers, was adapted into a stage hit that was quickly snatched up by Hollywood. Although his work up to this point depicted some of the darker realities of that way of life, his books and stories were still more character-driven dramas without a primary socio-political point of view.

During the 1930s, due to severe drought and decades of farming without crop rotation or other means of erosion prevention, severe dust storms blew away the topsoil of vast areas of the central plains of the U.S. and Canada, which became known as the Dust Bowl. Coupled with the economic disaster of the Great Depression, this ecological-agricultural crisis forced hundreds of thousands of people, many of them tenant farmers, off their lands, migrating from place to place in search of farm work to survive. Many of these people, lured by promises of abundant opportunities, headed to California. Although they were from a number of states and regions, the term "Okie" - coined for a native of Oklahoma, one of the hardest-hit areas - was attached to the waves of families desperately heading West, their few remaining possessions piled high on old, barely operating vehicles. Those who made it to California found little work, poor living conditions, a great deal of resentment and prejudice, and even violence directed against them. In 1937, responding to this flood of migrants, the state passed its "Anti-Okie Law" making it a misdemeanor to bring or assist in bringing into the state any indigent non-resident. These were the conditions Steinbeck discovered in the late 1930s when he visited migrant camps in northern California for a series of articles for a San Francisco newspaper.

Stirred to anger and an urge to take some action, Steinbeck decided to turn his ideas into a book. He had great difficulty, however, fashioning a novel out of the appalling situation, and he destroyed his first attempt, a story he called "The Oklahomans." Although he was stymied over how to structure his thoughts, he kept at it, composing letters and journal entries, some of which were later published. After another visit to the camps, a structure began to emerge, and Steinbeck gave himself 100 days to finish writing the book.

Steinbeck's wife at the time, Carol, came up with the title from the lyrics of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" ("Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored..."). She typed the manuscript as he wrote.

When The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, it became an instant hit, selling nearly half a million copies in its first year of publication. The novel was also critically hailed, winning a Pulitzer Prize and becoming a national phenomenon; it was discussed on the radio, in newspapers and magazines. In the years since its publication, it has been taught in high school and college classrooms, and some scholars suggest it may be the most widely discussed novel of 20th century American literature.

Despite its success, The Grapes of Wrath was also very controversial. Steinbeck was accused of being a communist sympathizer, a subversive, and of exaggerating the conditions in the migrant camps. (If anything, he most likely downplayed them). The Associated Farmers of California denounced the novel as a "pack of lies," and it was condemned by the California Chamber of Commerce. It was even banned from some libraries and publicly burned in some places. The furor even brought First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to Steinbeck's defense. Eventually congressional hearings were held on migrant camp conditions, and some changes were made to labor laws, but detractors on the Left felt Steinbeck had sentimentalized his story too much and failed to bring about more substantial reforms.

Darryl F. Zanuck, then head of Twentieth Century-Fox, loved the novel and made its screen adaptation a personal project. He offered Steinbeck $70,000 for the film rights, but the author signed only after the studio added a clause to his contract stating that "the producer agrees that any motion picture based on the said literary property shall fairly and reasonably retain the main action and social intent of the said literary property."

According to an article Zanuck wrote in 1954 for the Los Angeles Times, when Steinbeck came to the studio for the first story conference, he was very suspicious and told Zanuck he had been warned that the producer's scheme was to take the social significance out of the book and dilute its impact. The author expressed second thoughts about selling the rights after realizing the studio was controlled by the powerful Chase National Bank. Steinbeck's fears were allayed when he began working with Zanuck and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and saw that they were willing to take risks with the controversial material.

In the same article, Zanuck said he was worried the chairman of the board of Chase National Bank, Winthrop Aldrich, would "raise hell" for tackling a subject that did not put capitalism and big business in a positive light. But Aldrich, urged by his wife to read the book, found it "fascinating" and thought it would make "a wonderful movie."

Nevertheless, Zanuck wasn't taking any chances on having negative publicity affect the project. He gave Johnson strict instructions to make only three copies of the script (an unusually small amount for the time) - one for the writer and two for himself. He didn't want it falling into the hands of newspaper reporters and others on either side of the controversy waiting to take Fox to task for its treatment of the material.

After the intention to produce The Grapes of Wrath was announced, the Agricultural Council of California and the Associated Farmers of California began a publicity campaign against Fox in rural newspapers, calling for a boycott of the studio's films.

Johnson said he was intimidated by what he called the almost "biblical" quality of Steinbeck's book and was happy to take considerable notes on how to approach the story from Zanuck, who had started his career as a writer. (He later praised Zanuck's editing as having improved almost every script he ever worked on.) Johnson worked very hard to stay as faithful to the story as dramatization for the screen would allow. Eventually he sent Steinbeck a copy of the script with a note of apology for inserting a scene that was not in the book, the one where Pa Joad and his two younger children go into a roadside diner to buy a nickel's worth of bread. Steinbeck loved the scene and the script.

Very few changes were made to Johnson's first draft of The Grapes of Wrath.

Johnson did take liberties with the order of scenes. In the novel, the relatively benevolent government camp is the first place the Joad family stays, and they go steadily downhill from there. The trajectory is reversed in the story, so that although they're on the road again at the end facing an uncertain future, there is some sense of hope. The film diverged from the novel most significantly in its ending. Ma Joad's "We're the people" speech that ends the film is actually taken from a book chapter that appears about two-thirds of the way through the novel. Steinbeck's book ends with Rosasharn giving birth to a dead baby and then nursing a starving old man with the milk from her breasts. Johnson was later quoted: "There had to be some ray of hope, something that would keep the people who saw it from going out and getting so drunk in utter despondency that they couldn't tell other people that it was a good picture to see. Steinbeck agreed on the necessity for a more hopeful ending."

Although some modern sources claim Zanuck wrote the final scene, the only screenplays in the Fox Produced Scripts Collection, dated July 13, 1939 and July 31, 1939, are by Johnson, and both include a final scene very similar to the one in the finished film of The Grapes of Wrath.

Some sources state that during pre-production on the film, Zanuck sent a team of investigators to check on the truthfulness of Steinbeck's account of the migrant workers' plight and was informed that conditions were actually much worse than those conveyed in the novel.

Although the Production Code Administration approved the overall script, it did point out a number of potential censorship problems and made several suggestions and warnings. Among these were: not to characterize Muley as insane, not to show Tom killing the deputy in self-defense, the rewording of certain of the lines referring to Rosasharn's pregnancy, removing a "toilet gag" about Grandma, eliminating specific mention of a county in California, and requesting a town not be identified as "Pixley." Although most of the changes appear to have been made to some degree, Zanuck was quoted as saying, in May 1939, "If they [the Hays Office] interfere with this picture I'm going to take full-page ads in the papers and print our correspondence."

John Ford may not have been the studio's first choice to direct The Grapes of Wrath. A copy of the shooting script in the Fox archives bears the notation "Clarence Brown?", indicating the MGM director known for a number of Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford pictures might have been considered.

Ford did not immediately jump at the chance to direct The Grapes of Wrath. When he was approached in July 1939, he was still on location with the historical epic Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) and wanted to have more time to finish the current project with the care he felt it needed, followed by a month off. The more he thought about The Grapes of Wrath, however, the more attracted he was to it. He had liked the book and thought the script was well done. "The whole thing appealed to me-being about simple people-and the story was similar to the famine in Ireland, when they threw the people off the land and left them wandering on the roads to starve."

A number of casting ideas were bandied about: Beulah Bondi as Ma Joad, Walter Brennan as Pa Joad, James Stewart as brother Al. Bondi, in fact, had gotten enough positive signs about being cast that she reportedly bought an old jalopy and moved to Bakersfield to live among the migrant workers in order to study for the role. In the end, although Bondi was closer to Steinbeck's conception of the character, Ford preferred the more "earth-motherly" qualities of Jane Darwell. Ford also passed over bigger names in favor of character actors, albeit many of them fairly well known. He cast an actress he worked with in Drums Along the Mohawk, Nunnally Johnson's girlfriend at the time, Dorris Bowdon, as Rosasharn.

Some reports claim Fox stars Tyrone Power and Don Ameche were both in the running for the part of Tom Joad and that Spencer Tracy was also considered, but those names may only have been used by Zanuck to pressure Henry Fonda into signing a long-term studio contract so he could get the role. Fonda had long been a fan of Steinbeck and was very enthusiastic when his agent, Leland Hayward, called to tell him he was being considered for the movie. The young actor had recently had a breakthrough role with his iconic portrayal of the pre-politics days of our 16th president in Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and had just completed Drums Along the Mohawk with the director. He wanted to remain freelance and balked at Zanuck's pressure to sign a seven-year contract until it became obvious he would not be cast in the film otherwise. He relented two weeks before the start of production.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Production began on The Grapes of Wrath in October 1939, only four weeks after Ford finished work on Drums Along the Mohawk (1939). Because of this, most of the pre-production work was done for him ahead of time, including the hiring of Gregg Toland as cinematographer, who along with art directors Richard Day and Mark-Lee Kirk planned much of the look of the film based on a vast array of research photos and documents.

Ford and Toland clicked into a perfect working rhythm immediately, shooting long and medium shots in the morning to get delicate angled light, switching to close-ups at midday, and back to medium and long shots in the late afternoon. Toland went for a hard, sharp, almost documentary look.

Although archived legal files include a credit for a make-up specialist on the film, studio publicity materials noted that director John Ford banned all makeup and perfume from the set on the grounds that it was not in keeping with the tone of the picture.

Much of The Grapes of Wrath was shot on the Twentieth Century-Fox lot, but second unit director Otto Brower took a crew to Oklahoma, Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico, following the route that the "Okies" had taken West. Additional locations included Needles, Daggett and Tehachapi, California. Brower and his crew filmed doubles in long shot to represent the Joad family members. Reportedly this same unit paid five dollars apiece to carloads of people actually making the trek to California to be filmed along with the Joad truck as part of the film's fictional caravan of migrants.

Archived files indicate the area around Needles was used as a riverbank in the film, Canejo Ranch stood in for the Keene ranch, the Irvine Ranch in Tustin provided backdrops for a montage sequence, and Lasky Mesa, in the San Fernando Valley near Chatsworth, was used for the Joad farm and for Muley's farm. The real-life government-run Arvin Federal Government Camp near Bakersfield, California, was also used for some shots of the fictional government camp in the movie (e.g., the camp post office was used as the manager's office in the film).

Far from being a leftist with an interest in social problems, Ford decided to focus on the story purely through the Joad family as characters. "I was sympathetic to people like the Joads, and contributed a lot of money to them, but I was not interested in Grapes as a social study."

Typically, Ford clashed with people on the set of The Grapes of Wrath and treated some of his cast quite harshly. His main object of ridicule was Dorris Bowdon, who played Rosasharn and had worked favorably with the director before. It may have been because she was the girlfriend of screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and was given the part by Zanuck, or it may simply have been one of Ford's frequent unexplainable dislikes, but he hounded the young actress on every point, from coming on the set with her hair improperly done to taking time to have her hair fixed. Shortly before filming the scene of the dance at the government camp, Jane Darwell expressed her nervousness to Bowdon about "being such a fat old lady and I have to dance and say lines at the same time." When Darwell did the entire take perfectly, Bowdon spontaneously broke into applause, launching a tirade from Ford that made her run from the set crying. The next shooting day, Ford rather awkwardly cheered her up with a little bawdy humor, and the two got on well after that, although she later said, "I was glad I never had to work with him again." Yet, Bowdon in later life also expressed the duality of feelings actors often had for the difficult director when she related a story about how he painstakingly talked her through a very emotional moment that she ended up nailing in a single take. "He was a superb director," she said. "I never saw another director work in a way that was as skilled."

Ford also picked on other cast members, notably O.Z. Whitehead (Al Joad). He also unmercifully chewed out Frank Darien (Uncle John) for overemoting in the scene where Ma is preparing a simple stew for the family in front of a crowd of starving children in the migrant camp. By the time Ford had finished his tirade, Darien was completely drained, which proved to be exactly the take Ford wanted for the scene.

The chief source of irritation to Ford was his inability to embarrass or upset John Carradine who played Casy. Bowdon said Carradine had a huge ego, considered himself a great actor, and was impervious to whatever Ford threw at him, although their antagonism often produced perfect moments of performance and character.

Henry Fonda had high praise for Ford at this early point in their long professional association (the tensions and strain would come much later). The actor called him "a giant as a director" and noted how Ford preferred only one take and little or no rehearsal to catch the most spontaneous moment. For the key climactic final scene between Tom and Ma, Ford didn't even watch the rehearsal. When the time came to shoot, Ford led Fonda and Darwell through the silent action of the scene, preventing them from starting their lines until the two actors were completely in the moment. It was done in a single take and Fonda said on screen it was "brilliant."

In this crucial scene between Tom and Ma, Fonda had to strike a match whose light would illuminate Darwell's sleeping face. Toland rigged a tiny light in Fonda's palm to achieve the effect.

Principal photography on The Grapes of Wrath wrapped after 43 days. Ford claimed he concluded the film as he had planned, with the shot of Fonda going over the hill, never to be seen again. Zanuck may have directed the final scene as it appears in the picture (Ma's "We're the people" speech), but it was always meant to conclude the story, as evidenced by the existing scripts in archives.

Zanuck was closely involved with every aspect of the project, particularly in post-production. Zanuck's attention to details even extended to adding minute elements of sound and music to the finished film. Reportedly, he was the one who had cricket chirps added to the soundtrack during the scene in which Casy and his "radical" associates are camped near the river, and he also is said to have insisted on the inclusion of a prominent accordion part in the spare musical score because he considered it the most American instrument. Although officially uncredited, sources list the accordion player as Danny Borzage, brother of director Frank Borzage and a regular bit player in Ford's stock company in a number of films between 1924 and 1964. (Borzage also played the accordion on Ford's Western Stagecoach, 1939.)

Zanuck's interest in sound reportedly led him to send a sufficiently loaded replica of the Joad truck to Oklahoma to record the grinding and shifting of gears (according to Ford biographer Scott Eyman). Sound effects editor Robert Parrish insists the audio footage was never used, and that Zanuck, thinking it was his requested sound of the truck that he heard in the rough cut, approved the soundtrack and never knew the difference.

Ford did not mind Zanuck's involvement, even praising him, especially for the decision to end The Grapes of Wrath on Ma Joad's speech.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Awards and Honors

The Grapes of Wrath won Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress (Jane Darwell) and Best Director (John Ford); it was nominated for Best Picture, Actor (Henry Fonda), Film Editing, Sound Recording, and Screenplay. Fonda was the odds-on favorite to win that year, but the Academy gave the award to his close friend James Stewart, who was one of the names proposed for a supporting role in the picture (as brother Al). Stewart, who won for The Philadelphia Story (1940) told the press before the awards were announced that he had voted for Fonda. (Many have speculated that Stewart won the Oscar that year as compensation for being passed over for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939).

The movie was included in Film Daily's "ten best" list for 1940

It was named Best Film by the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Association. The critics' group also chose Ford as Best Director.

The Grapes of Wrath was included in the first 25 films selected by the National Film Preservation Board to be preserved in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1989, the first year selections were made.

The movie was ranked #7 on the American Film Institute's 2006 list of the 100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time.

In 2007, ranked #23 on the American Film Institute list of the Greatest Movies of All Time.

The Critics' Corner: THE GRAPES OF WRATH

"If all this seems strange for Hollywood-all this fidelity to a book's spirit, this resoluteness of approach to a dangerous (and, in California, an especially dangerous) topic-still stranger has been the almost incredible rightness of the film's casting, the utter believability of some of Hollywood's most typical people in untypical roles. Henry Fonda's Tom Joad is precisely the hot-tempered, resolute, saturnine chap Mr. Steinbeck had in mind. Jane Darwell's Ma is exactly the family-head we pictured as we read the book. ... The Grapes of Wrath is just about as good as any picture has a right to be; if it were any better, we just wouldn't believe our eyes."
Frank Nugent, New York Times, January 25, 1940

"Absorbing, tense melodrama, starkly realistic, and loaded with social and political fireworks. ... Grapes is far removed from conventional film entertainment. It tackles one phase of the American social problem in a convincing manner. It possesses an adult viewpoint and its success may lead other producers to explore the rich field of contemporary life which films long have neglected and ignored."
John C. Flinn Sr., Variety, January 31, 1940

"It is quite a movie. ... You may forget Fonda is in the company-his performance is so tough, undeviating and simple you may think he is one of the extras, or one of the actual migrants."
Pare Lorentz, McCall's, 1940

"It is an honest, eloquent, and challenging screen masterpiece. Great artistry has gone into its making and greater courage, for this screen tribute to the dispossessed not only has dramatized the large theme of Mr. Steinbeck's novel in enduring visual terms-it has demonstrated beyond any question that the cinema can take the raw stuff of contemporary living and mold it to a provocative photoplay pattern."
Howard Barnes, New York Herald Tribune, 1940

"Ford's film, shot by Gregg Toland with magnificent, lyrical simplicity, captures the stark plainness of the migrants, stripped to a few possessions, left with innumerable relations and little hope."
Matthew Hoffman, Time Out Film Guide (Penguin, 2002)

"John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath is a left-wing parable, directed by a right-wing American director, about how a sharecropper's son, a barroom brawler, is converted into a union organizer. The message is boldly displayed, but told with characters of such sympathy and images of such beauty that audiences leave the theater feeling more pity than anger or resolve. It's a message movie, but not a recruiting poster. ... Henry Fonda['s] Tom Joad is one of the great American movie characters, so pure and simple and simply there in the role that he puts it over. Fonda was an actor with the rare ability to exist on the screen without seeming to reach or try. ... I wonder if American audiences will ever again be able to understand the original impact of this material, on the page and on the screen. The centenary of Steinbeck's birth is now being observed with articles sniffing that he was not, after all, all that good, that his Nobel was undeserved, that he was of his time and has dated. But one would not want The Grapes of Wrath written differently; irony, stylistic experimentation and 'modernism' would weaken it."
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, March 31, 2002

"This is one of the most important Hollywood films of the Roosevelt era."
- Georges Sadoul, Dictionary of Films

"This famous film, high on most lists of the great films of all time, seems all wrong - phony when it should ring true. Yet, because of the material, it is often moving in spite of the acting, the directing, and the pseudo-Biblical poor-people talk. In some externals, the production is as authentic as a documentary."
- Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies

"Through Nunnally Johnson's articulate script, Ford is pleading, pleading, pleading, and in the film's last quarter he offers perhaps too optimistic a salve...Jane Darwell as Ma gives a wholly committed performance, but it is Fonda, with his cat-like walk and his deep-etched gaze, who takes on the features of an Everyman, suffering with grace and every so often lashing out against exploitation. Few Hollywood films have taken so stern a stand against the realities of social injustice."
- Peter Cowie, Eighty Years of Cinema

"The Grapes of Wrath came from the heart...Time and again, Toland adds a mood of Dorothea Land and the WPA. Ford got it right. It's hard to draw much of a distinction between his movie and Walker Evans's work on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941, but planned years before) - there is an epic, pictorial quality in both, and maybe in the Ford you can see the faces of actors sometimes. But he delivered the message...Sixty years later, The Grapes of Wrath still looks like an earnest and touching attempt by the film industry to honor years of national hardship and sacrifice, and Fonda's Tom Joad is timeless and true and a key warning of how a society may make outlaws out of its best material."
- David Thomson, Have You Seen.....?

"The most mature motion picture that has ever been made, in feeling, in purpose, and in the use of the medium."
- Otis Ferguson

"A sincere and searing indictment of man's cruel indifference to his fellows."
- Basil Wright

"....one of the earliest Hollywood films to reveal a genuine social conscience and to attempt a realistic treatment of ordinary people. Ford drew uniformly notable performances from his excellent team of actors and was able to make effective use of studio 'exteriors' thanks to the beautifully lit and composed photography of Gregg Toland."
- The Oxford Companion to Film

"Inspired by childhood memories of the great potato famine, John Ford's magnificent adaptation of John Steinbeck's book is somehow both sentimental and austere; it reminds you that Ireland is the land of Samuel Beckett as well as Sean O'Casey. Ford and cinematographer Gregg Toland manage the unbelievable task of making Henry Fonda unrecognizable at first: His haggard, sallow face holds no trace of movie-star familiarity. The masterful Toland outdoes himself, surpassing even Steinbeck's rough-hewn poetry. The harsh light and menacing shadows split the world into temporary winners and all-time losers, with community the only way to weather the storm."
- Sam Adams, Philadelphia City Paper

"Ford's visualization of Steinbeck's novel is so emotionally gripping that viewers have little time to collect themselves from one powerful scene to the next...the picture had lost none of its power as a social document, a historical testimony, or a work of cinematic art."
- TV Guide

Compiled by Rob Nixon

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teaser The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

SYNOPSIS: Economic and natural disasters have turned the farmlands of the American plains into the Dust Bowl forcing thousands of families out of their homes and onto the road West to seek any means of survival in California. One such family is the Joads, a proud but destitute lot who, against all odds, make it to the "promised land" only to find no work, no place to stay, and much prejudice, resentment, and violence against them and their fellow migrants. As they move from place to place, members of the family die off or leave, but Ma Joad struggles to hold them together with hope and determination, while her son Tom begins to perceive a new vision for humanity.

In his book The Fondas (Citadel, 1973), John Springer made a bold claim for The Grapes of Wrath: "The Great American Novel made one of the few enduring Great American Motion Pictures." Even accounting for film journalism hyperbole and divergent opinions about the original book and its screen adaptation, which was not always favorable, few would argue the essential truth of what he wrote. Hollywood abounds with mediocre films made from acclaimed books and wonderful films adapted from minor works of prose. Yet in The Grapes of Wrath we have that rare thing: an ideologically charged literary work of outrage and compassion, one that had tremendous public impact and was brought to the screen by a major Hollywood studio with some of the top industry talents working at their peak. The film, like the novel, also had its detractors; some argued that the movie was occasionally sentimental in treatment with its downward spiral of despair transformed into a trajectory of hope. Still, almost everyone agreed that the movie was faithful to its original source in spirit and attitude.

John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has received its share of critical drubbing in the years since. It may well not be the Great American Novel after all, yet whatever its flaws, it remains one of the most read, taught, discussed, and valued works by an American writer and an important historical document. Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century-Fox, recognized that at the time and made it his personal mission to document the social tragedy of the Dust Bowl on the screen. Part of his decision may also have been motivated by the book's controversy which was always good for generating advance publicity and interest. For starters, he enlisted John Ford, one of the most respected directors in the industry, top technicians, and a cast of mostly non-stars, character actors carefully chosen for a degree of authenticity. The one true "name" in the cast was Henry Fonda, who gave arguably the finest performance of his career, certainly one of his most iconic, emerging not only as a highly respected actor but, along with his previous film for Ford, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), as a defining American persona. Jane Darwell as Ma Joad may have been too warm and nurturing for the author's conception of the tough, wiry woman of the plains. Still, the actress gave a memorable performance and one scene in particular has become one of the movie's defining moments - the one where she bids farewell to her house and the life she is leaving behind. Silently reliving then discarding her memories alone in her bedroom, she forever captured the fear, heartbreak and ultimate strength of the American family in peril.

Henry Fonda had high praise for Ford at this early point in their long professional association (the tensions and strain would come much later). The actor called him "a giant as a director" and noted how Ford preferred only one take and little or no rehearsal to catch the most spontaneous moment. For the key climactic final scene between Tom and Ma, Ford didn't even watch the rehearsal. When the time came to shoot, Ford led Fonda and Darwell through the silent action of the scene, preventing them from starting their lines until the two actors were completely in the moment. It was done in a single take and Fonda said on screen it was "brilliant."In this crucial scene between Tom and Ma, Fonda had to strike a match whose light would illuminate Darwell's sleeping face. Toland rigged a tiny light in Fonda's palm to achieve the effect.For all the bitter social outrage and damning leftist politics that fueled the book, it is surprising, considering the time and the circumstances, how much of that remained intact in the film. Yet, it is the Joad family that is true heart and soul of the story and even more so in the film. This was firmly Ford's intention. Emphasizing the human factor, showing ordinary people pitted against the sweep of history and the sometimes overwhelming landscape (thanks in no small part to cinematographer Gregg Toland's masterful visual approach), he created a film that, as critic Andrew Sarris has written, "was to single-handedly transform him from a storyteller of the screen to America's cinematic poet laureate." It's an important film in Ford's canon, but even more essential is its example of the collaborative process of the studio system at its best - screenwriter, director, cast and crew, and a very involved and committed producer in the service of a literary work's words and insights. Whatever case may be made against calling it "great," there's no doubt about "enduring."

The Grapes of Wrath won Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress (Jane Darwell) and Best Director (John Ford); it was nominated for Best Picture, Actor (Henry Fonda), Film Editing, Sound Recording, and Screenplay. Fonda was the odds-on favorite to win that year, but the Academy gave the award to his close friend James Stewart, who was one of the names proposed for a supporting role in the picture (as brother Al). Stewart, who won for The Philadelphia Story (1940) told the press before the awards were announced that he had voted for Fonda. (Many have speculated that Stewart won the Oscar®: that year as compensation for being passed over for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939).

Director: John Ford
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson, based on the novel by John Steinbeck
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Editing: Robert Simpson
Art Direction: Richard Day, Mark-Lee Kirk
Music Director: Alfred Newman
Cast: Henry Fonda (Tom Joad), Jane Darwell (Ma Joad), John Carradine (Casy), Charley Grapewin (Grandpa), Dorris Bowdon (Rosasharn), Russell Simpson (Pa Joad).
BW-129m.

by Rob Nixon

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