Notes on John Ford, 1939-1941: The Grapes of Wrath

Over the next month or two, I’ll be looking back on the work of John Ford between 1939-41. In those three years, Ford directed seven movies. I’ll try to look at all seven films, but I’m not sure if I’m willing to watch Tobacco Road again. We’ll see. For the sake of transparency, I’ll admit up front that Ford is easily my favorite director. I could happily list off a dozen of his films that I believe are among the greatest works of art in the 20th Century. So, yes, there’s a bit of a bias here. If these articles seem like gross praise at times, that’s because they are. I did not come to love his work quickly, though; it’s taken the better of 10 years for me to begin to grasp exactly what he was up to. 

The Grapes of Wrath (1940) 

In the 21st Century, it’s easy to look at John Ford’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath and see it as a compromised product of an impotent Hollywood system that was dominated by the Production Code, and nothing more than that. Yes, the film, especially in the ending, does deviate from John Stienbeck’s classic controversial novel. But since it would have been impossible to recreate Stienbeck’s semi-graphic closing imagery at the time, modern audiences should be willing to take the ending with a grain of salt, especially since the final scene was mandated not by John Ford but by Daryl F. Zanuck, Ford’s producer at 20th Century Fox. Looking beyond the end of the film, we should be amazed that an adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath surfaced at all in the Hollywood of 1940, only two years after Stienbeck’s novel had been published. Not only did it get made, but it is a truly great film in its own right; of its time, for its time, and timeless all the same.

In Ford’s body of work, The Grapes of Wrath is right in the middle of perhaps his hottest period. In 1939 alone, he had released three films; two (Stagecoach and Young Mister Lincoln) are masterpieces and the other (Drums Along the Mohawk) is pretty good, too. In 1940 he released The Grapes of Wrath and Tobacco Road. 1941 saw the release of The Long Voyage Home and How Green Was My Valley, after which he would serve in WWII.

Looking over the larger context of Ford’s work, it’s not difficult to see why he would gravitate towards Stienbeck’s novel. The material of the book is emotionally raw, it had immediate political relevance, and it detailed the breakup of the family unit, a subject that Ford would turn to many times throughout his life. With Henry Fonda in the role of Tom Joad, the film version was bound to create a stir; both Zanuck and Ford knew that lightning could strike with a good adaptation. These elements alone – Ford, Stienbeck, and Fonda – would be enough to make a compelling picture. There are two other elements, though, that send The Grapes of Wrath into the territory of greatness: Gregg Toland’s cinematography and Ford’s use of folk music, especially “Red River Valley”.

Gregg Toland is most famous now for his cinematography on Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.  His work there was indeed more groundbreaking and eye-catching. He deserves every bit of recognition that he has gotten for that film, to the point where I would say that Toland was a co-creator with Welles. His work on The Grapes of Wrath, however, might be just as good if not as immediately noticeable. It is easy to pass over Toland’s camerawork, because it fits the subject matter so perfectly; visually, The Grapes of Wrath looks palpably dirty, even when shot on Fox studio sets. This is, of course, due in part to the superb art direction of Richard Day and Mark-Lee Kirk, but Toland deserves a lot of credit for keeping the shine off of almost every scene except some of the final sections when the Joad family finds some peace and rest in a government-run agricultural camp.

The most spectacular scene comes early in the film when Tom Joad, fresh out of the state penitentiary on parole, returns to his now vacant Oklahoma home. He and his former preacher friend, Casy, approach the deserted house at night. Inside, they light candles to see their way around. Normal shooting conventions of the day would’ve stipulated that a candle be lit and then a soft secondary light, in the shape of a circle, be used to fill in the rest of the scene. Toland uses just the candle, pitting both Tom and Casey in a structure that seems less like a house and more like a black hole. You half expect the place to be haunted. That anyone could’ve ever lived there seems nearly impossible. The effect that Toland gives us is something normally found in a horror movie, and yet it is completely appropriate here. The Dust Bowl drove people off of their land without mercy, creating a desolate, harsh place. Everyone left because they were forced off their land, and no one had any reason to stay except that they had no where else to go. A similar approach to lighting is taken later on in the film when the Joad family is questioned by police at checkpoints. Toland allows the flashlight to rip into the faces of this migrant family, washing them out, making them seem almost invisible in the midst of their plight. And indeed they were; dehumanized and degraded for the sake of a little more profit on the peaches.

The environments in The Grapes of Wrath are especially striking, because Ford and Toland chose (perhaps out of necessity) to shoot on location quite a lot. The film is structured as a journey, acting as a sort of travelogue time piece, chronicling the shape of the land that the Joad family travels – from Oklahoma to California. When the Joad family is forced to the side of the road by a flat tire, we get the chance to look at the rocks and dusty ground around them; bridges and small towns, too. We become all too aware that they are in the middle of a barren land that feels almost post-apocalyptic.

Like Stienbeck’s novel, the film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath is a lamentation for the American Dream. As the Joad family prepares for their trip to California, Grandpa Joad dreams aloud of shoving grapes into his mouth, letting the juice drip down his face and on to his shirt. He imagines himself casually picking peaches off the branch and eating freely. That promised land never comes. Grandpa Joad, sick with the sadness of leaving his lifelong home, dies shortly after the journey begins. The family, left to press on, never realizes Grandpa’s humble fantasy. They get to California alright, and they see the rows and rows of fruit trees. But the product of the land is cut off from them; something they can only labor over and never enjoy. Their California lives are relegated to transient worker camps that hold only starving children and slight wages. Their new environment is not unlike their old one, only this time there are a wealth of other people to share their misery with.

Always with them as they travel, whether played on guitar at a camp or on the soundtrack, “Red River Valley” dominates the aural landscape of the film, constantly beckoning us to remember a place that never appears in the film: an Oklahoma full of healthy farms and happy families working on them. The dream is not realized and the family breaks apart piece by piece; Grandma Joad dies near the California border, Casy has himself arrested to cover for Tom, Rose of Sharon’s husband drops off to learn how to be a radio repairman, Pa Joad becomes a shell of a man, and finally Tom has to break off from the family because he is wanted for murder. The rest of the family presses on, but the hope offered in Ma Joad’s final monologue seems hollow, even if it is lifted directly from a part of the novel. The road is rough and it probably leads nowhere.

The Joad family didn't own a camera, but this picture might have been in their memories


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