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The Big Idea - The Grapes of Wrath
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The Grapes of Wrath,The Grapes of Wrath

The Big Idea Behind THE GRAPES OF WRATH

Wednesday July, 17 2019 at 08:00 PM
Thursday August, 1 2019 at 02:00 AM

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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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