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THE GRAPES OF WRATH

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Russell Simpson, John Qualen, Grant Mitchell
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

"We're 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."

Film ****

Movie 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, changed that.

Steinbeck 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.

In 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 migrants.

The 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.

Agriculture 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.

The 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.

Thus, 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.

The 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).

Whichever 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.

The 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).

Prior 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.

The 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.

The 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.

As 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.

Tom 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.

In 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.

Tom 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.

Tom 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.

That 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."

The 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 film.

By 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.

Ultimately 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.

By 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.

The 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.

Video *** 1/2

The 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 was substituted.

This 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.

The 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.

The 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!

Audio ***

The 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.

Features ***

The 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.

This 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.

The 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!

For 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.

Next, 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.

Lastly, 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.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Darryl Zanuck himself directed the final scene in The Grapes of Wrath!

Summary:

The Grapes of Wrath by any standard is one of the truly great American films.  Absolutely a top recommendation!