The Grapes of Wrath
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its flaws, it remains one of the most read, taught, discussed, and valued works by an American writer and an important historical document.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).
by Rob Nixon