Thursday, September 2, 2010

1940 - The Grapes of Wrath

A few nights ago, I joined some of my cast mates to frequent a local Central Pennsylvanian bar. Unfortunately, I was turned away at the door for not having the correct I.D. You see, the law states that not only must all patrons be over the age of 21, but they must also be carrying an appropriate form of identification in order to confirm their age. Even if you clearly appear to be of age, you must still carry one of three acceptable forms of I.D., namely a military I.D., a passport or a state-issued I.D. (which includes a driver's licence). Well, I'm not in the military, my passport is back in New York and my driver's licence is from Australia. So, no luck there. I did, however, have my Green Card with me, but the gentleman behind the bar was kind enough to inform me that it was not state-issued. True. In fact, it is federally-issued, which you would think would hold more weight than mere state-issued items, but alas, his hands were tied. To add insult to injury, he made it clear that he could tell I was older than 21. "Way older" were his exact words. Thanks...

So, we went to another bar around the corner where the rules were more lackadaisical.

Yesterday, I managed to fit in another nominee from the 1940 Best Picture race...

The Grapes of Wrath
John Ford
Nunnally Johnson
(based on the novel by John Steinbeck)
Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Charley Grapewin
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
2 wins, for Best Director and Best Supporting Actress (Darwell)

Paroled after four years in prison, Tom Joad (Fonda) returns to his family's Oklahoma farm only to discover they are being driven out by greedy landowners. Such is life during the Great Depression. In search of work, the Joads load up their poor excuse for a vehicle and head for California, an area that they have heard is in dire need of fruit-pickers. The journey along Route 66 is far from smooth sailing and life in California is no picnic either. The family hops from town to town trying to make ends meet, fighting the working class fight.

A classic American film based on a classic American novel, The Grapes of Wrath is best described as solid. Solid story. Solid performances. Solid direction. The narrative is eventfully robust, teeming with activity at every turn, yet despite the action's varying nature, the picture still retains a strong sense of unity. One might even call it solid.

All this solidness does have its downfall, however, since it is partly achieved through highly stylised dialogue. It makes for some clean and delicate moments, but it also feels a tad methodical. Nonetheless, the Joads' action-filled journey kept me involved, outweighing the saccharine taste of the dialogue.

Henry Fonda in a comfortable newsboy cap (pictured) leads the cast with a strong portrayal of a determined man, chalking up his first Oscar nomination. It was co-star Jane Darwell, however, who won a Supporting Actress award for her affecting turn as the Joad matriarch. For pure entertainment value, it's hard to go past Charley Grapewin's antics as Grandpa Joad.


  1. I don't think it'll be your pick. I'm a bit surprised since everybody loves her.

  2. John Ford was not the most loquacious of directors. One of the few comments about his craft was "the main thing about directing is photographing the people's eyes." Together with the great cinematographer Gregg Toland, The Grapes of Wrath certainly demonstrates this objective. The entire film is expertly filmed, one of the best Black and White movies on the books. Amazingly, Toland wasn't even nominated for this, although he did pick up a nomination for The Long Voyage Home. Both Ford and producer Darryl F. Zanuck were confirmed republicans, but you'd never guess it from the socialist themes and left leaning slant, even if some feel it doesn't go far enough. Regardless of politics it is hard not to be deeply affected by the social conditions and hardships that faced so many people during the great depression. Ford presents these indomitable people in concise, clear-eyed portrayals, and for the most part eschews sentiment. It is above all, a film about family both individual and the family of man. I will admit it does get preachy at times. Henry Fonda's famous speech at the end of the film is an example. However, Fonda's character gets away with it, based on what came before the speech. Jane Darwell deservedly won the Best Supporting Actress Award probably edging out an equally deserving Judith Anderson for Rebecca, and this film may contain John Carradine's best work. Finally, John Qualen, kind of annoying in Ford's other 1940 film The Long Voyage Home is stunning here in his small role as Muley, a deranged neighbor driven off his land.

    A very minor observance, but in the scene where Tom Joad slides under the jalopy to place the jack when they get a flat tire, Ma Joad is sitting on the front fender. Tom clearly says to her: "Get the hell off there" This minor profanity still caught me by surprise, coming so soon after the famous "frankly my dear I don't give a damn" from Gone with the Wind, relaxed the production code a year early.

    As far as I'm concerned, three of the ten nominees from 1940 stand above the pack. The Grapes of Wrath is one of the three.