09 August 2008

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

d. John Ford / USA / 128 mins.

Upon first inspection, John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath really does seem to live and die by the power of John Steinbeck's prose from the original novel and the adaptation into a screenplay by Nunnally Johnson. Steinbeck's novel, of course, is one of the greats from the twentieth century, winning the Pulitzer Prize and becoming standard assignment fare in high schools across the country. But the film has a lot of talking, moralizing, and philosophizing, some of it more memorable than others ("Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there..."). The last time I'd seen The Grapes of Wrath was in conjunction with my sophomore year of high school when our American literature class read Steinbeck. While I enjoyed it I couldn't see the movie for the cinematic experience it is. More than a decade later and I'm of the mind that this is truly a movie's movie, one where the direction and visual style greatly outshine the core story's power.

The two men responsible for the movie's greatness are Ford and Gregg Toland, the brilliant cinematographer that one year later would collaborate with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane. Toland was said to have studied the Depression-era photography that appeared in Life magazine, and his eye for visuals is the most memorable aspect of the film. More than any acting or any word from the script, Ford and Toland set an immediate tone for the film by bathing it in darkness and shadow. Many shots are captured with the smallest amount of light possible, sometimes by nothing more than a flickering candle or a dim off-screen source. Other shots will positively knock you over, including one where the faces of the beleaguered Joad family appear as ghostly apparitions reflected in the windshield of their jalopy. The film is staged so appropriately, too, with Ford's wise decision to film on location instead of on set. (Hey, what else should you expect? It's Ford.) Everything clicks in a way most films don't; this film, along with his western-defining masterpiece Stagecoach a year earlier, are true testaments to Ford's brilliance in economy.

Although the visual style outweighs the story, you can't really deny the story its due credit. The screenplay is a strong adaptation, and although it undoubtedly possesses a left-wing tilt, it feels relieved of the weight of Steinbeck's occasional heavy-handedness. (Entire essays and books have graphed the politics of The Grapes of Wrath, so far be it from me to do so here.) The film and book have dramatic differences, largely due to the Production Code's limitations on what could be shown on screen. There's also the unavoidable decision to bend the story in a slightly more optimistic way.

The cast is first-rate. Henry Fonda is, as always, wonderful in the lead as Tom Joad, the family's erstwhile son who returns to find the Depression has sucked up his town like a black hole annihilating stars. Fonda's performance is the real winner, although John Carradine is strong as the ex-preacher Jim Casy, and Jane Darwell has moments of exuberance as Ma Joad (she won an Oscar).

Ford won his second of four Best Director Academy Awards for The Grapes of Wrath, in a year of strong competition that had him beating out Alfred Hitchcock, who had been nominated for Rebecca. In hindsight we now know Hitchcock most likely stood the best chance of winning the award that year than any other time he was nominated. (He was nominated for five – Rebecca, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window, and Psycho. He won none but did receive an honorary Oscar in the twilight of his career.) Hitchcock's film is a great one as well, but I acknowledge that Ford's film does have a more memorable visual flair than Hitchcock's. Not to mention, Ford had the benefit of working with a cooperative producer, Darryl F. Zanuck, while Hitchcock had to toil under the obsessive David O. Selznick. And besides, Rebecca – while great – would not top my list of Hitchcock's greatest achievements. The Grapes of Wrath, however, is among the finest two hours you can spend with John Ford.


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