Saturday, December 6, 2008

GREAT FILMS: The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Directed by John Ford

Sprung from the mind of the literary genius John Steinbeck, during the depths of The Great Depression came a masterpiece which completely embodied the troubling times for many Americans. Beyond that, he wrote a novel so compelling and grand that few stories before or since have been as cherished or studied. That novel was The Grapes of Wrath. Sandwiched between his other classics Of Mice and Men and East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath was a massive success, winning Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize. Few filmmakers would have had the bravery or the pride to take on this immortal story, but John Ford, probably the most mythic of all American studio directors, was just the man to do it.

The film assembles what is easily one of the greatest ensemble casts in cinematic history. For the iconic character of 'Ma Joad', Ford recruited veteran actress Jane Darwell. Playing one of the signature characters in American literature, Darwell possessed the strong-minded Ma so fluidly, yet with such grace, that she was able to walk away with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress when it was all done. For the shamed profit Casy, there is John Carradine. With his lanky limbs, and long face, Carradine's portrayal of the worn-down former preacher is a perfect characterization of one of the book's most important characters.

It's the film's main character though, Tom Joad, that guides the film along. For that all-important role, Ford was able to get an actor with whom he'd just worked with a year earlier in Young Mr. Lincoln. It was then very young Henry Fonda. Fonda, always the face of imminent wisdom and grace throughout his career, has his greatest screen performance in The Grapes of Wrath (did you really think his best work was On Golden Pond? Didn't think so). For the role of Tom, Fonda did not rely on his kind eyes or suave sensiblility, but instead dug into the deep, dark core created by Steinbeck.

That is probably what makes the film so great, it never eases up on Steinbeck's relentless narrative. Telling the stories of oppressed migrant workers during The Depression was never a stretch for Steinbeck, but none of his other books are as damning of the American system the way Grapes of Wrath is. Steinbeck knew that it was not the problem of the parts that caused the biggest economic meltdown in American history, but the problems of the whole. Most importantly, the people who ran it all, they were the ones who should be held responsible. Most would expect Ford, a respected studio filmmaker, to lighten up on Steinbeck's bitter portrayal, but he instead trekked on.

As we watch the Joad family--forced from their Oklahoma home by banks, and traveling to California in search for work--what we are really seeing is every American family. This was the vision that Steinbeck had hoped for, and that is what Ford delivered. The Joads are not from Oklahoma, as much as they are from the Heartland. As farmers, they are the life and blood of this country, the ones who work the hardest. The close-knit family also representing the strength of will in the hearts of all Americans. By machines and technology, they are whisked away from their home of decades--there is no need for their labor anymore.

At least, no need for it in Oklahoma, because there is plenty of work in California, where they're headed. Where they hope to find oppurtunity, they find nothing but more hardship. Not only is there not enough work to go around, but they also encounter extreme prejudice from those Californians who are scared of all the desperate 'Okies' stealing the work oppurtunity. American families pinned against American families, fighting for the right to eat that day. It was an ugly scene. Steinbeck based the novel on trips he took to visit the migrant workers during the mid-1930's. No other novel of his, though, represents the plight of the migrants more than The Grapes of Wrath, where he makes the case that the American government not only let them down, but made them inhuman.

But let's stick to the greatness of the film. John Ford won his second Best Director Oscar for this film. The combination of Ford and Steinbeck is a perfect storm of such magnificence, which has a rare chance of ever happening again. We have arguably the two greatest Americans ever in their respective professions collaborating together. Sure, Ford changed Steinbeck's storyline around here and there (including cutting out the brilliant, but controversial ending of the novel), but he still encompassed the rebellious spirit. The American will that lays within the hearts of characters pulsates, and the religious imagery that Steinbeck so strategically peppered throughout the story still speaks with much profundity.

The film of The Grapes of Wrath is culminated in two scenes. Both scenes have their place in the book, but are done much differently in the film. Ford, knowing the dramatic power of each part, places them in ominous moments in the film, where they can reach their optimum effect. The first scene is one between Fonda and Darwell. Tom hopes to sneak out and leave the family, before a crime he's committed incriminates all of them. Before he can leave, Ma stops him, and pleads with him to stay, in which Tom responds with his majestic "I'll be everywhere" speech, that still stands as one of the great monologues in movie history. The second scene takes place at the very end of the film: The Joad family, having gone through all they've gone through, drive on forward, while Ma explains to all of them "We're the people that live", exclaiming the tried and true spirit that kept so many American families going even during the darkest times.

The Grapes of Wrath that will always be relevant, as long as there are those people who have to fight every day just to keep the lights on. It's a testament to what is glorious about being an American. The idea of The American Dream has become so convoluted over the last century. It is not about making as much money as you possibly can, or becoming the most grandiose of powers. The American Dream is about getting by despite race, creed, sexuality, religion, etc. We are a country with a twisted, sometimes horrible history, but we have landmarks of grace and success. The Grapes of Wrath gives a small taste of what it means to struggle, and the strength it takes to survive it. After eight years of the Bush Administration and economical destruction seemingly coming down the pike, it'll be interesting to see if the American people still have the valor that people like the Joads had in even harder times.

No comments: