Review: The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

The Grapes of Wrath


John Ford
Nunnally Johnson (Novel: John Steinbeck)
128 min.
Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Charley Grapewin, Dorris Bowdon, Russell Simpson, O.Z. Whitehead, John Qualen, Eddie Quillan, Zeffie Tilbury, Frank Sully, Frank Darien, Darryl Hickman, SHirley Mills, Roger Imhof
MPAA Rating

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Source Material

It may shock many of you that I had never seen The Grapes of Wrath before. It’s definitely not the type of film I enjoy watching and since the likelihood of a feature about the Oklahoma dust bowl and Great Depression being, well, depressing, also kept me from wanting to pop this one in. I’m glad that I did wait because I’m afraid that as a younger viewer I might have dismissed the film entirely instead of in just a few small ways as I will be doing today. The film focus on a family of 10 Oklahoma farmers moving hundreds of miles west in the desperate hope of finding employment in the boom towns of California. Forced off their land during the dust bowl area by greedy landlords wanting to decrease overhead by eliminating their tenant farmers, the Joads try to make a life for themselves along with the thousands of others moving out west.

There are two performances that stand out from the film. The first is that of Henry Fonda whose Tom Joad, a paroled murderer who returns home to find his family has been forced to move away, generally comes off as a strong central character. The main problem with Fonda’s performance is that in the first 30 minutes, he seems far too worldly and wealthy to be playing Tom Joad. As the film goes on, that presence quietly shifts into the character, but often I was reminded that I was watching Fonda give a performance, not watching Fonda as Tom Joad. And while the rest of the actors are good enough and John Carradine is the best of them, they don’t hold up well against Darwell or Fonda.

The second performance of import is that of Jane Darwell who plays Ma Joad, the film’s emotional core. Through her, you can see all the hope and desperation of the family. You witness the conviction, the passion and the sorrow and you’re almost convinced this could have been your mother. However, there are so many scenes where John Ford brings us in close-up of Darwell who lets her two decades of silent work mar her facial expressions with overwrought sentimentality. These scenes are thankfully few and are more than made up for in her lonely scene sitting in front of a mirror next to the woodfire stove. As she’s perusing her memories attempting to choose what she can throw away and what she should keep, she finds a pair of earrings that remind her of how things used to be. It’s perhaps one of the single most powerful scenes I’ve seen on film and reminds me of the lonely telephone chat in Make Way for Tomorrow.

The film itself has its powerful moments and tells an important saga that, in 1940, would have been far closer to the emotional spirit of the people of the time. And while it may not have that entire impact today, there are similarities to our current financial crisis with foreclosures and high unemployment forcing desperate families to do what they have to do to survive. It’s an important lesson and, if I thought corporate executives had hearts, I’d say this should be required viewing for them, but their greed knows as little bounds today as it did to those shysters in California over-employing themselves and paying less to do so. While there are several scenes that haunt, there are several that inspire, but a few that feel a teensy bit phony.
Review Written
August 16, 2010

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