Behind the Camera on THE GRAPES OF WRATH
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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