The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940)


The “I’ll be there” speech: 


Everything but the “I’ll be there” speech:

A haunting, moody, and incredibly bleak adaptation of Steinbeck’s just as bleak novel, with just enough of a hint of optimism to give the plight of the Joad family, and every family like them during the Depression, an ounce of hope.  Gregg Toland’s cinematography, and the film’s lighting, are as impressive as advertised.  Many scenes, like the haunting early one where Tom investigates the Joads’ abandoned house, is lit by no more than a single candle as he gets the full story through conversation, and many shots occur at night, characters no more than silhouettes, in everything from a walk through the work camp to a deadly scuffle between striking workers and vicious law enforcement under the bridge.  You’d think that’d get old after a while, but it doesn’t.  The near-eternal darkness, coupled with an almost complete lack of music, is soul-crushing, and makes the Joads’ journey towards an unknown future that much more stifling and desperate.  The well known documentary-like shot as the camera, from the point of view of the Joads’ truck, drives through the work camp is like the just as famous long shot from “Paths of Glory”, perfectly capturing the absolutely deplorable and pathetic conditions of a Depression-era work camp like no other, each dirty face regarding the camera more forlorn than the other.  And just as he proved in “Young Mr. Lincoln,” John Ford again proves to be a master of the quiet, outside-the-plot moments that are nothing short of profound.  Moments like Tom and Casy under the tree, reminiscing about Casy’s days as a preacher, or Ma facing the mass of children as they simply stand before her, regarding the Joads’ food with faces of longing that are just heartbreaking, or a tractor taking down a long-standing farmhouse, as the camera simply regards the disheartened family’s shadows on the ground.  Many moments like those don’t contribute to the “plot”, but none of them feel superfluous either.  It’s all about a time in place, and a mindset of the Joads and an entire group of people who had to pack up and go, not knowing what was in store.

Many of the performances are exaggerated, but all were memorable, even if a scant few characters can be picked out by name, from the silly grandpa who masks a poignant rage at his family having to leave the only home they’ve known for generations to Casy and that haunting look of defiance as he takes the fall for Tom after a tragedy, to the modest Pa and his awkward but sincere attempt to please his young kids by buying penny-a-piece candy.  Fonda’s great as Tom, combining that signature aww-shucks optimism with a hidden rage/desperation, quietly observing the sad fate of displaced farm families like his own, maturing before our eyes, and would make an ideal leader of this huge Joad clan – if not for Ma.  Quite simply, Jane Darwell as Ma Joad is incredible – she’s the story’s Greek chorus, observing and making comments on the sorry state of Depression-era sharecroppers that we all were thinking.  Her caressing the family’s already-dead grandmother in the back of the truck for show, just to assure that her family makes it across the border, sadly becomes a small kind of triumph in a situation like this.  The night before the Joads leave their home, Ma, in one of many of those dark, atmospheric, candle-lit scenes, burns some of her most prized mementos, laughing and crying to herself at old memories in a quiet moment that’s moving as hell.  That look of pure joy on her face when Tom comes home, and he turns around, smiles, and simply says “Ma”, with no swelling music to tell us what we should be feeling – just mother and son being reunited, a single word and a single face telling us all we need to know, nearly brought tears to my eyes – as did her “Tommy, ain’t you gonna tell me goodbye?” as he tries to sneak off one night to avoid bringing police attention to the family.  Her look of pure, unadulterated sadness from that bed, knowing that she may never see her son again, but knowing he must go, is more heartbreaking and profound than any speech or line of dialogue about how bad families like the Joads have it.  Documentary-like footage of deplorable work camps and dark, atmospheric scenes are great for establishing a mood of foreboding and desperation and near-hopelessness, but it’s the relationship between Ma and Tom and their mutual understanding of each other, that affected me the most.  On their own, Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell give great performances, but it’s the chemistry between them and their characters’ mutual status as the emotionally strong leaders of their immense family, that turn two great performances into one profound relationship.

The ultimate tragedy of “The Grapes of Wrath,” believe it or not, doesn’t end with the horrors of the Depression that we see on-screen with starvation, desperation for work, and a nomadic existence, but rather what comes afterwards – a totally unknown and pessimistic future.  The Joads set out for California, against all logic and hope, because they have no choice.  They must do what is illogical, they must hope for the impossible, that they’ll find the miracle job that in all likelihood doesn’t exist, because there’s nothing else to fall back on, which is why the government-controlled work camp they come across, with baths and toilets, tiny but habitable huts, and weekly dances, seems like Eden itself, even for a comfortable middle class viewer like myself.  Makes sense, then, that that camp is one of the few places in the film that isn’t shrouded in darkness and shadow by Gregg Toland.  The dance scene, even with the pervading thread of vicious cops waiting to strike and Commie-fearing agitators who’ve snuck their way into the camp, is joy and bliss itself – a welcome reprieve from what comes before and afterwards.  It’s one of the most beautifully-shot films you’ll ever see, and paced just as beautifully and leisurely by Ford, as you’d expect, but behind that beauty and pace is a bare-bones, desolate film about a family in a likely no-win situation, that you root for and love, but you know is likely doomed.  But their optimism, whether misguided or not, is how they get by and endure – a life both miserable and admirable.  “We go on forever, Pa”, Ma says, “’cause we’re the people.”  But what does forever hold?


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