For most of us today, the Great Depression of the 1930’s is something we may have read about in our history books. For anyone still alive during the depression experiencing it was something that would never be forgotten. If these depression era folks shared their memories and they lived in a big city like New York or Seattle, they may talk about Hooverville. There were many Hooverville’s in many cities across the country. If they lived in more rural areas like Oklahoma, they would talk to you about the dustbowl that ruined the farmland and the mortgage companies and banks that foreclosed on their land.
John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath is arguably the most famous film about the depression, and was one of the first films selected to be in the National Film Registry. Based on John Steinbeck’s classic novel, the film follows the Joad family from the dustbowl of Oklahoma as they journey to what they hope is a better life in California. Few other films capture the gloom, the harshness, the misery of proud people remaining strong in the face of economic destruction like Ford’s masterpiece. William Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread (1934) are strong competitors.
Looking back at Ford’s filmography, this may seem like an unlikely project for the director. Ford though a political conservative in his later years was in an earlier time a liberal. Therefore, his filming of a book that has been a foundation for liberal empathy is not as extraordinary as one may think. Additionally, if you look at the film as a study of man’s passage to the western frontier, then Ford is certainly in familiar territory. He has made some of the most successful films about the transition, and opening, of the west with such works as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950), and The Iron Horse (1924). The Grapes of Wrath fits right in as a story of families looking for new land to settle and start life anew.
In the film’s first scene we meet Tom Joad (Henry Fonda). He’s walking down a wide open dirt road, just released from jail after four years for killing a man in a barroom brawl. He hitches a ride from a reluctant truck driver, telling the driver that only a good man would defy the company rule about not picking up hitchhikers. This scene establishes right from the beginning that Tom Joad is a man who is fighting the “system,” a theme that is prevalent throughout the film. It’s never one individual who is ever to blame; it’s the system that is responsible. When Muley Graves (John Qualan), the Joads’ family neighbor, has his land taken away, he wants to shoot whoever is responsible only to be told there is no one individual, it’s a company that’s taking the land, and behind that company is another faceless company and another and another. The film follows Tom Joad reuniting with his family as they prepare to head west for a better life after the bank has foreclosed on their family farm. Attracted to California by advertisements promising jobs, good pay and a better life they pack up all their belongings onto a beat up truck and travel west along Route 66. Once in California, the migrant camps they find are filled with starving folks out of both work and hope. Just like themselves. When jobs picking fruit become available, the rich owners cut the pay offering only a fraction of what they used to pay. The Joad family moves from one camp to another. However, it’s the same wherever they go. One night Tom comes upon a secret meeting of migrants who are trying to unionize. Strikebreakers soon discover the meeting and a fight breaks out. Tom’s friend Casy (John Carradine), a former preacher, now dedicated to fighting against social injustice, is killed by a deputy goon. Tom fights back killing the deputy. With the police now on the lookout for Tom, the Joad family is forced to leave the camp and find themselves soon at a new camp. Unlike the first camp, this is a clean, well-organized camp run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Having witnessed the ill-treatment and squalid conditions that the migrant people have been forced to live and endure, Tom has evolved. From a bar brawler he has become a man with a cause, a defender in the battle between the powerful and the powerless. In the most famous speech of the film, Tom tells his mother, “I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build, I’ll be there, too.”
The Grapes of Wrath is a heartfelt piece of filmmaking. Nominated for six Oscars, the film won two, John Ford as Best Director and Jane Darwell as Best Supporting Actress. Other nominations included, Best Picture (Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca was the winner) and Henry Fonda was nominated for Best Actor. Surprisingly, Cinematographer Greg Toland who painted Dorothea Lange like images in the film was not nominated for the magnificent work that contributes greatly to the bleak atmosphere of the film. Toland is responsible for the innovative deep focus photography that would contribute much to Orson Welles masterpiece, Citizen Kane, just one year later. Toland also worked with Ford that same year on The Long Voyage Home.
The adaptation of the novel was by another Ford alumnus, Nunnelly Johnson, who previously worked with Ford on The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936) and would work again with him the following year on Tobacco Road (1941). Johnson followed Steinbeck’s book closely, at least the first half. The book’s downbeat ending was changed to a more upbeat version, and the then shocking scene of Rose of Sharon, who lost her baby, offering her milk filled breasts to a starving man would have never been passed by the censors of the day.
For Henry Fonda, who made seven films with Ford, Tom Joad was the role of a lifetime. In order to get the part Fonda agreed to a multi-year contract with 20th Century Fox. John Carradine, who plays Casy, the Christ like ex-preacher searching for the truth within, eventually sacrificing himself, is one of Carradine’s most memorable performances. Casy’s actions become the source of Tom’s transformation as a defender in the conflict between the oppressor and the oppressed.
There are of course plenty of other films that take a look at the Depression of the 1930’s. Chaplin does a comical turn in Modern Times (1936). Woody Allen captures the feel of 1930’s escapism into the movies with his fine 1985 film The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). More serious, darker looks can be seen in Our Daily Bread (1934), Man’s Castle (1933), Bound for Glory (1976), Splendor in the Grass (1961), Of Mice and Men (1939), Ironweed (1987), Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?(1969).
My parents talked about the depression and the impact it had on them and so many others. They never forgot what it was like. There was no money; food was scarce, as were jobs. Thirty percent of the population was unemployed! Companies folded. Those who had jobs feared losing them. Unfortunately, much of what they said is as applicable today as it was then. We’ve had companies like AIG, one of the largest insurers needing a Government bailout, banks defaulting, Lehman Brothers filing Chapter 11, the American auto industry threatening to go bankrupt, other corporations laying off thousands of workers and people’s homes being foreclosed. In the depression era musical, Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), one of the most memorable tunes is the ironic, We’re in the Money! Maybe, we all need to start singing that again.
Note: This review orginally appeared a few years ago on the HALO-17 website which is no longer up and running.