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GRAPES OF WRATH, THE (director: John Ford; screenwriters: from the book by John Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrath/Nunnally Johnson; cinematographer: Gregg Toland; editor: Robert Simpson; music: Alfred Newman; cast: Henry Fonda (Tom Joad), Jane Darwell (Ma Joad), John Carradine (Jim Casy), Charley Grapewin (Grandpa Joad), Dorris Bowdon (Rosasharn), Russell Simpson (Pa Joad), O. Z. Whitehead (Al), John Qualen (Muley), Eddie Quillan (Connie), Zeffie Tilbury (Granma); Runtime: 129; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Darryl F. Zanuck; 20th Century Fox; 1940)
“A superb film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning classic novel set during the Great Depression about Oklahoma farmers’ migration from the dust bowl to the paradise of California. It is starkly translated into a classical film by John Ford and is faithfully adapted to the screen by Nunnally Johnson (though there were many changes made for reasons of eliminating profanity to artistic decisions to make things a little less bleak), while its grim visuals are magnificently captured by the innovative cinematographer Gregg Toland. The movie won Oscars for best director and best actress (Jane Darwell as Ma Joad) and was nominated for best actor (Henry Fonda) and best picture (it lost to Hitchcock’s “Rebecca”). Many regard it as one of the greatest American films ever, though it has slipped through the cracks and is rarely played on cable or regular TV. The book title was taken from the lyrics in the Battle Hymn of the Republic, by Julia Ward Howe.

The story centers around the large share-cropping Joad family. Henry Fonda as the hot-tempered Tom Joad, who is just released after serving jail time for manslaughter and returns to his Oklahoma home where he meets family friend Casy (John Carradine), a former preacher, who warns Tom that dust storms, crop failures, and new agricultural methods have financially ruined the once fertile farmland. Upon returning to his family farm, Tom is greeted by his saddened mother, Ma Joad (Jane Darwell), in their rundown shack, who tells him that the family decided to go to California to find new hope after being kicked out of their farm through foreclosure. Already aware that Californians will be hostile regarding them as competitors for jobs, and seeing for themselves a caravan of forlorn farmers heading back home after failing to find work–all 12 Joads act with dignity and still journey on in their battered truck along Highway 66. On the way, their grandfather dies, and they bury him themselves. The grandmother also keels over, but Ma refuses to tell anyone until they get to California. The family tries to overcome a series of miserable conditions that plays as a liberal parable against the economic system that put them into this terrible bind. When Tom kills the thug hired by the bosses to stop them from union activities, the one who had arbitrarily killed Casy, he goes on the run and has to say goodbye to his mother. She only asks him where he’ll go. With that, he delivers the film’s most remembered speech: “I’ll be all around…Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat…Whenever there’s a cop beating a guy, I’ll be there…And when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build. I’ll be there too.” That just about sums up the powerful punch the film delivered in this intensely drawn realistic drama, rare for a Hollywood film and one worth remembering for the poetically simple way it gets across its message without shoving it down your throat and shows how these poor folks were taken advantage of wherever they went.

It’s an epic story of people battling on with little hope. A superb film, that hits home even though the bitter ending is softened. The film tries to be more upbeat than end like the book on Tom’s sister Roseaharn giving birth to a stillborn child and offering her mother’s milk to a starving man in a railroad car. The film has Ma Joad, as the family moves on without the outcast Tom in search for “twenty days work” near Fresno, California, giving Pa Joad a stirring Knute Rockne type of pep talk: “Can’t wipe us out. Can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever. ‘Cause we’re the people.”


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”