A pet project of Darryl Zanuck's, The Grapes of Wrath exercised the packaging talents of Fox's studio head for a large part of 1939 as he put together a team appropriate to a book with the stature of Steinbeck's novel. John Ford was an obvious choice to direct, Dudley Nichols to write the script, and Henry Fonda to star as Tom Joad, the uneducated ex-convict "Oakie" who becomes the personification of flinty Midwestern integrity and moral worth. Knowing Fonda's wish to play Joad, Zanuck lured him into signing an eight-picture contract by advertising his intention to cast in the role either Don Ameche or Tyrone Power.
Ford, Nichols, Fonda and the supporting cast translated Steinbeck's novel to the screen with proper fidelity, the distortions far outweighed by the spectacular rightness of Fonda's casting and the remarkable cinematography of Gregg Toland, clearly influenced by the dust bowl photographs of Walker Evans and Margaret Bourke-White. The film's opening image of Tom Joad walking with tireless application out of the flat Midwestern landscape against a counterpoint of leaning telephone poles, suggests the themes of society confronted by an ecological and historical disaster against which it is helpless to act. Accustomed to such material from his frontier films, Ford took instinctive and instant command.
Clearly he felt an affinity with the plight of the dispossessed Kansas farmers of Steinbeck's story, which mirrored that of his Irish forebears turned off the land in the potato famine of the 19th century. And he had already established in films like Four Men and a Prayer the image of the family as not only unbreakable but an instrument for change, an institution that could act to improve social conditions. Throughout the film, it is the independents like John Carradine's itinerant preacher Casey and the half-mad fugitive Muley (John Qualen) who seem lost, desperate for companionship, while Jane Darwell and Russell Simpson as Ma and Pa Joad exhale a sense of calm and confidence. As Ma affirms at the end of the film, in a scene added by Zanuck to underline the moral and blunt the harsh dying fall of the novel, no force can destroy the will of people who are determined to live.
The picture Ford and Nichols draw of Depression America pulls few punches. Disinterested banks employ local strong-arm men to dispossess the share croppers and evict farmers unable to keep up mortgage payments on their own over-used, poorly maintained properties. Muley's futile stand against the bulldozers wilts when he recognizes one of his neighbors in the driver’s seat. One has to eat even if it means betraying one's own kind. Deprived of his sacred kinship with the earth, sanctified by "living on it and being born on it and dying on it," Muley becomes "just an ol' graveyard ghost" flitting about his crumbling house in the light of Tom Joad's lamp.
The Joads set out for California, their lurching truck loaded up with possessions, relatives and, in a touching gesture, the preacher Casey, invited along after a brief and hurried calculation of the vehicle's strength. Casey is a classic Fordian figure, a religious madman who acts as custodian of principles, the celebrant of rituals like Mose Harper (Hank Worden) in The Searchers. He says the brief funeral oration over Grandpa Joad when he succumbs to the trials of the journey. He also turns into a primitive union organiser when greedy employers exploit the itinerants desperate for work as fruit-pickers. He's no natural radical – just a man with a proper sense of right and wrong. Amused, he says of the bosses' thugs who hunt him, "They think I'm the leader on account of I talk so much." When he dies, murdered by the employers, it is Tom who carries on his duty, instinctively sensing his destiny. "Maybe it's like Casey says. A feller ain't got a soul of his own, but only a piece of a big soul." And he walks off again, as he entered the story, undramatically spreading the gospel of social reform.
The Grapes of Wrath abounds with examples of Ford's skill in visual language. Poor talkers, the Joads express much in a way of standing, looking, responding to the land through which they pass. Ma Joad's cleaning up of the old house is shown largely without dialogue, but her careful turning out of a box of mementoes, the discovery of a pair of earrings and her action of putting them on her ears and looking up into the dark at some half-forgotten moment of youthful pleasure could hardly be bettered with words. Jane Darwell is perhaps too plump, matriarchal, too Irish for her role, and Ford's first choice, Beulah Bondi, has a greater physical claim to the part with her gaunt, stringy resilience, but so effective is Ford's use of the actress that one can no longer imagine anyone else playing it.
Fonda remains the focus of the film, his clear-eyed sceptical gaze reaching out to the camera no matter where he stands in the frame. The strength of his moral convictions is all the more striking for the imperfection of the character which supports them. Just released from jail for a murder, Tom is unrepentant: "Knocked his head plumb to squash," he recalls to an alarmed truck driver who gives him a lift. He has little understanding of politics ("What's these 'Reds' anyway?"), enjoys a drink and a dance, but has no time for abstract discussions. That such a man can be roused to moral wrath by injustice dramatizes the self-evident corruption of the system, and the belief in his conviction carries an audience to a conclusion startlingly radical by the standards of the time. Ford's reactionary politics, his populism and republicanism, must have stood in direct contradiction of the book's harsh message, which may explain his acceptance to the final suger-coated scene. Yet in Ford's world, to keep faith meant more than any political creed; better to believe in an error than not to believe at all. When Ma Joad at the end of The Grapes of Wrath professes the absolute faith of a peasant people in simple survival, one hears Ford's voice as clearly as that of writer, producer or star.
Release Date: 1940
Starring: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson, Charley Grapewin, Zeffie Tilbury, Frank Darien, Frank Sully, O. Z. Whitehead, Dorris Bowdon, Eddie Quillan, Shirley Mills, Darryl Hickman, John Carradine, John Qualen, Ward Bond, Paul Guilfoyle, and Charles D. Brown
Director: John Ford
Writers: Nunnally Johnson
Source Citation: Baxter, John. "The Grapes of Wrath." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 483-486.