THE GRAPES OF WRATH
Review by Ed Nguyen
Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Russell Simpson, John Qualen, Grant
Director: John Ford
Audio: English stereo/mono, Spanish mono
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Black & white, full-frame 1.33:1
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Features: Commentary, Darryl Zanuck documentary, Movietone clips, restoration comparison, still gallery, U.K. prologue, trailers
Length: 129 minutes
Release Date: April 6, 2004
the people that live. They can't
wipe us out, they can't lick us. And
we'll go on forever, Pa, 'cause we're the people."
halls, during the 1930's, offered American audiences their only real diversion
from the dreary reality of the Great Depression era. The motion picture industry churned out hundreds of escapist
fantasies, mostly musicals or light comedies, and very few films dared to
seriously address the dire living status of a large portion of the American
working class. John Steinbeck's
novel The Grapes of Wrath, however,
was a native Californian. His
writings often revolved around his home state and frequently examined the
working class condition. Steinbeck
was also a meticulous author who thoroughly researched the situations he
described in his novels, routinely seeking first-hand experience himself.
For a time, he even worked on a farm as a common laborer.
preparation for The Grapes of Wrath,
Steinbeck joined migrants from Oklahoma as they traveled to California in search
of new hope. He visited many
migrant camps in California, including Department of Agriculture sites, to more
fully understand the dilemma forced upon these migrants by a struggling economy
in which a quarter of the population was unemployed. From all these experiences, Steinbeck was able to craft a
novel that honestly depicted the desperate situation for many of these Dust Bowl
novel was first published in 1939 and caused an immediate uproar.
It brought to the forefront the ugly socioeconomic reality of migrant
life even as America was trying to recover from the Great Depression.
Probably no American novel since Uncle
Tom's Cabin had provoked such a social, critical, and political outcry from
all manners of people and classes. There
was especially a great deal of opposition to the novel from California, which
objected to how the state was portrayed in the novel for its treatment and class
discrimination against the migrants (essentially for their poverty).
It might be reasonably argued that, even today, contemporary California
continues to maintain a sensitive relationship with migrant workers, most of
whom are now Mexican immigrants.
in California during the Great Depression was controlled by large farming
interests, with the Associated Farmers organization being the most influential.
The group was widely viewed as an extremely hostile and belligerent
organization which regularly resorted to intimidation or threats to force
migrant workers to accept pitifully low wages.
In addition, there was emerging trouble from communist demonstrations in
California at the time, and so migrants frequently found themselves caught
between the greedy farming power interests and communist organizers.
novel's title was itself a reactionary cry towards this social inequality.
It was a biblical reference to judgment day - "And the angel thrust
in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it
into the great winepress of the wrath of God (Revelations 14:19).
More generally, the title was a direct reference to a verse from the
Civil War tune "Battle Hymn of the Republic" -
Mine eyes have seen the
glory of the coming of the Lord,
He is trampling out the
vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.
the title was an indirect protest against the dichotomy between the corporation
of landowners and the individual, poor sharecropper/migrant.
It suggested that in due time justice would be served, that the
oppressors would be punished for their sins, while those who were made to suffer
would, on some level, eventually find salvation and hope.
title alludes to just one of several layers of interpretation generally
attributed to the novel. The novel
can be taken at face value, of the struggles of one family, or it can be seen as
an allegory for the worldwide struggles of not only the Oklahoma migrants but of
all groups of people who are displaced and forced to start anew in face of great
opposition. It can also be viewed
as a work of social commentary that calls for reform, with the character of Tom
Joad ultimately embodying such ideals. At
its deepest level, the novel is a religious parable that confronts the meaning
of the human soul and man's place or purpose in God's universe (this theme being
mostly symbolized by the character of Jim Casy).
way the public embraced (or rejected) the novel, The Grapes of Wrath withstood the critical and socio-political
uproar to become regarded as a great landmark novel of social comment and
protest. Very soon after its
publication, the major motion picture studios of the time waged a huge bidding
war for the film rights, which were eventually won by 20th-Century Fox.
The studio quickly set the film into production, only to realize that the
daily existence of the migrants, if anything, was even more grim than had been
described in Steinbeck's novel.
studio selected John Ford to direct the film.
Already a seasoned director with many westerns to his credit, including
the recent Stagecoach (1939), Ford was
an ideal director for the film. His
poetic style of storytelling had been perfectly suited to the grandeur and
sentimentality of the western, and it would fit Steinbeck's tale very well.
Ford's films also frequently possessed a folk sensibility, and he became
particularly attracted to The Grapes of Wrath for its similarities to the potato famine which
had devastated and displaced so many Irish farmers and their families decades
earlier (Ford was himself the youngest son of Irish immigrants).
to The Grapes of Wrath, there had been
very few films that dealt with the Depression. The most notable example was Mr.
Deeds Goes to Town, but even that film did not possess an unrelenting
depiction of the social ills and devaluation of human life encountered by the
migrants. The Fox studio mogul
Darryl Zanuck envisioned The Grapes of
Wrath as the film that would finally address those problems in a frank
manner. To that end, Zanuck
utilized every resource at the studio's disposal to create an adaptation that
would be faithful to the drama and tone of the already famous novel.
film of The Grapes of Wrath was
released in theaters in January 1940. It
starred Henry Fonda, one of John Ford's favorite actors, as Tom Joad, the eldest
son of an Oklahoman family. Other
noteworthy casting included Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, the stoic matriarch who was
central to the unity of the Joad family, and John Carradine as the former
preacher Jim Casy. True to the
novel, the film was quite sobering and presented an unflinchingly stark portrait
of migrant life. The film also took
pains to use much of the dialogue from Steinbeck's novel, which had so
brilliantly captured the authentic flavor of the migrants' speech.
Grapes of Wrath
is a tale of one Oklahoman family, the Joads.
They are sharecroppers who have lost their tenant farm.
Faced with the prospect of being homeless, they set out with great hopes
for a new beginning in California. Along
their voyage, they discover the harsh reality of migrant life and eventually
become victims of the greed and prejudice that so many of these similarly
desperate families confronted during their journeys.
The film (as did the novel) addresses the conflict between justice with
the fundamental avarice of landowners willing to exploit the plight of honest
but unfortunate people for menial labor.
the film starts, the distant opening shot is one of Tom Joad walking down a
rural dirt road. All around him are
signs of the scarred and exhausted earth, as fields lie barren and dust scatters
in the wind. Tom is a loner, an
angry young man displaced from society and without purpose.
He is returning home after four years' absence, although the home he once
remembered no longer exists.
will have to slowly assimilate himself back into family life.
As the film progresses, he will in time discover a new role in life.
Helping him on this path of self-discovery and reform will be Casy (John
Carradine), another itinerant drifter. Casy
was once was a preacher but has now lost his calling, confessing at one point
that he "can't be a preacher no more. Preachers gotta know.
I don't know. I gotta ask." Casy
senses a need to "explore the wilderness" of human experience.
When Tom heads west with his family, Casy will come along.
But while the Joads' journey is a physical one, Casy's will be a
spiritual one as he tries to find a voice for the people.
the novel, Casy represented an Emersonian ideal, philosophizing that a man's
soul was merely part of a larger Oversoul entity. Thus, there was a kinship among all men, no matter their
words or deeds on Earth. The novel
also contained many Christ allusions associated with Jim Casy's character (his
initials are J.C.). For the movie,
however, the religious symbolism is toned down, and Casy becomes more
representative of the American spirit and of the cry for equality for all
people, rich or poor. Through Casy,
Tom will eventually learn the need for social engagement and commitment - the
individual may fail, but through unity the people will persevere.
first encounters Casy on his walk home. Together,
they walk to the Joad homestead only to find it empty and strangely lifeless.
They meet Muley Graves (John Qualen), a fellow homeless sharecropper who,
refusing to leave, now wanders the dusty fields.
Muley relates to Tom all the events that had transpired since Tom was
away. Tom learns of the heartless
eviction of numerous families, his own included, from their own land and of
their plan to drive westward to California in search of a new home.
soon re-locates his family on a nearby farm on the eve of their journey.
The Joads' spirits are high, and there is some excitement in the air,
especially with the eldest son now back in the fold and the family re-united.
Their optimism might be severely tested many times ahead on their
journey, but it will never be completely dampened.
During this early stage of the film we hear the only mention of grapes in
the film. Grandpa Joad
enthusiastically describes his California dream of gorging himself on grapes in
his new home. It is a bright
statement that becomes ironic the next morning when Grandpa adamantly refuses to
leave his old state. His fate will
be tied to that of the dying, barren land, and in this way, he is a reflection
of Muley Graves's character.
morning, the journey begins. It is
an exodus, not only for the Joads but also symbolically for the hundreds of
other Dust Bowl families who have been forced to abandon their home during the
Depression years. They all travel
towards the promised land of California, where there is hope of opportunity and
a fresh start. For the Joads
though, money is already scarce, as is food.
The jalopy truck they ride is barely capable of holding their worldly
possessions, let alone carrying two families.
There are numerous road checks (in real life, "bum blockades"
were typically set at the California border to turn back migrants).
The strangers who the Joads encounter along the way react mostly in the
insensitive manner by which many migrants were regarded: "They ain't
human...a human being wouldn't live the way they do."
Joads are perhaps luckier than many, for they eventually arrive in California
and settle in a labor camp. Sadly,
the squalor of the camp is typical of an era when greedy landowners would
regularly exploit these workers as essentially slave labor for very little wage.
With food and supply only readily available from expensive company
stores, such migrants could never hope to improve the quality of their lives.
The conditions of the real labor camps are accurately reflected in the
comparison, government camps offered much friendlier lounging.
Migrants were treated with kindness and dignity in such camps, of which
there were eventually fifteen in California.
All were outfitted with modern hygienic facilities, and each practiced a
democratic system of self-discipline to maintain the peace and order.
There were even frequent weekly dances for entertainment. In the film, there is one such benevolent camp, modeled on
the reports of Tom Collins, a real manager of one such camp.
though, California is not the promised land for the Joads.
They do find contentment in one of the government camps, but it is only a
temporary respite. The journey must continue, as the Joads must travel where the
jobs are available. Even Tom Joad
eventually finds himself in a position where he must choose to stay with his
struggling family or leave them, possibly forever. He recalls the earlier words of Casy, "Tom, you gotta
learn like I'm learnin'." Tom even confesses, "I ain't thought it all
out clear...I can't, I don't know enough." Those very words echo Casy's
sentiments earlier in the film, and it is only in repeating them that Tom
realizes his true vocation, to be a voice for the people and to carry on Casy's
message for social commitment and compassion.
the film's conclusion, the Joads' familial identity has been partially
splintered. Not everyone who
started the journey from Oklahoma still remains in the fold, and the core family
is in danger of losing its unity. Only
Ma Joad's strength of character holds them together. It is perhaps most telling that producer Darryl Zanuck
decided to alter the conclusion by bringing in Ma Joad's dialogue from earlier
in the novel to make the conclusion more optimistic and hopeful.
Under Ma Joad's guidance, in spite of all the tribulations and hardships
encountered by the Joads, they must endure and carry on.
They are the spirit of the people, and they represent everyone who has
struggled during these trying times. That
is Ma Joad's message to her family and also one that reinforces a theme seen
throughout the film, that the single family is superceded by the family of
mankind. The Joads' journey thus becomes humanity's journey, and
whether spiritual, intellectual, or physical, it is a path navigated
successfully only through unity.
Grapes of Wrath
was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar that year.
Jane Darwell also won a much-deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar for
her role as Ma Joad, and the film garnered a great deal of respect for Zanuck's
relatively young movie studio. The Grapes of Wrath was a risky endeavor, a politically
controversial mainstream film that challenged the system.
Fortunately, thanks to the considerable dedication and heart that went
into its creation, the film became recognized as a truly great American work and
remains to this day as astonishingly relevant, poignant, and thought-provoking
as when it was first released.
Grapes of Wrath
is presented in its original black & white, full-frame format.
The film was originally slated for release on DVD in mid-2003, but its
release date was eventually pushed back until early 2004 due to the prolonged
effort required to properly restore the film.
The transfer was derived predominately from an incomplete nitrate
composite dupe negative in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New
York City (sadly, the original film negative no longer exists).
In areas where the MOMA footage was either missing or too severely
damaged to be used, footage from a fine grain master positive in the Fox vaults
DVD also includes the film's U.K. prologue that was used for international
screenings. If selected, this
optional prologue will appear immediately after the opening titles and offers a
couple of additional title cards that describe the plight of the Dust Bowl
migrants so international audiences might have a better frame of reference.
main question now is, of course, after all this time how does the film look?
In a word, it looks excellent. The amount of detail in every frame is astounding, and the
contrast levels are superb, allowing the beauty of Gregg Toland's cinematography
to practically shimmer! Black
levels are deep and true without breakup. I
saw no edge enhancements and no digital artifacts.
only flaws are mostly minor and have more to do with the film's age and the
multiple source prints used than anything else. The Fox print was inferior to the MOMA print, and the
difference (fewer details, slightly darker contrast, greater emulsion
deterioration) can occasionally be seen wherever the Fox print was employed.
There are some rare dust marks, and the picture has spots of contrast
fluctuation, more so during darker scenes, but nothing about which to fret.
To be quite frank, I must applaud the Fox studio for their great effort
in restoring this classic film. The
initial wait for this DVD was lengthy and the delay even more agonizing, but the
superlative video quality of this DVD completely justifies all the time and
effort that was required to make the film presentable!
Grapes of Wrath
is available in either its original monaural soundtrack or a stereo re-mix. There is also a Spanish monaural track which sounds a little
thin to me (I didn't linger very long on it, though). I didn't care much either for the stereo re-mix, which boosts
the volume of the dialogue but also has a weird echo chamber quality.
The original monaural track, however, is quite nice.
It is clear of background hiss or pops, and the dialogue is clean and
natural-sounding. This audio may
not have a great dynamic range but it is more than adequate for this classic
film and should be the preferred listening option for the film.
Grapes of Wrath
is the latest addition to the Fox Studio Classics series.
This series originally started back in January 2003, and since that time,
the Fox studio has regularly released one film a month from its vaults for the
series. The vast majority of these
films have been true classics, and many bear the influence of the studio's
greatest mogul, Darryl Zanuck.
of course brings us to our first bonus feature - "Darryl F. Zanuck: 20th
Century Filmmaker" (45 min.). This
documentary was an episode of the Biography
cable series as originally seen on A&E.
For a half century, Zanuck was the creative genius behind 20th-Century
Fox. The documentary follows his
career from his days as the boy genius behind production for Warner Brothers to
his years at 20th-Century Fox, which he co-founded in the early 1930's and built
into a highly successful movie studio. The
Grapes of Wrath was one of his first efforts to create a dramatic film that
could garner him the highest recognition Hollywood could bestow - the Academy
Award. The film won a couple of
Oscars, but Zanuck would have to wait until the following year's How
Green Was My Valley to win his first Best Picture Oscar.
Zanuck continued to wield considerable influence at the studio until the
early 1970's (The French Connection
was one of his final hits) before ailing health forced him into retirement.
remainder of the bonus features on this DVD focus upon The Grapes of Wrath. The
most significant feature is the commentary track by Joseph McBride, a historian
and scholar on the films of director John Ford, and Susan Shillinglaw, a
professor and author of several works on John Steinbeck.
They take turns talking about the film and Steinbeck respectively, with
Shillinglaw commenting on symbolism in the film and novel.
Both scholars are extremely knowledgeable yet never boring; their shared
commentary is frequently spiced up by their tendency to drift into debates and
frequent disagreements over Ford, Steinbeck, and interpretations of the various
themes in the film and novel. The
discussion even wanders into the realm of communism, black-listing, and the
Vietnam War, of all things! Overall,
this is a wonderful commentary that is worth checking out!
further historical perspective, a Movietone section provides a brief glimpse at
the devastation of the Great Drought upon the American Mid-West.
There are three short Movietone news clips from 1934 showing drought and
cattle starvation, while a fourth out-take clip shows the actual living
conditions in some of the camps set up by the Department of Agriculture.
Lastly, there is a 1941 clip of President Roosevelt expounding the
virtues of the American film industry, along with a presentation of the Best
Supporting Actress Oscar to Jane Darwell.
there is an art gallery with sixteen still photos or promotional posters for The
Grapes of Wrath. Also included
on the disc is a restoration comparison that goes into some detail about the
restorative process and offers a side-by-side look at the film from its 1993
appearance to the current (and clearly superior) digital restoration.
there are six vintage trailers for The
Grapes of Wrath, All about Eve, My
Darling Clementine, The Ghost and Mrs.
Muir, An Affair to Remember, and The
Day the Earth Stood Still. All
are part of the Fox Studio Classics series.
TRIVIA: Darryl Zanuck himself
directed the final scene in The Grapes of
Grapes of Wrath
by any standard is one of the truly great American films.
Absolutely a top recommendation!