Sunday, April 1, 2012

#594. The Grapes of Wrath (1940) - The Films of John Ford

Directed By: John Ford

Starring: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine

Tag line: "The Joads step right out of the pages of the novel that has shocked millions !"

Trivia:  A sequel was in the works at Fox the year after the film's release.

The Grapes of Wrath is set in the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s, when families were forced - by both the climate and banks - to abandon their homes and hit the road, searching for a new American dream. Unfortunately, it was a dream many would never track down.

Based on John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath opens with former convict Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) arriving home after four years in prison. He finds the Joad’s Oklahoma farmhouse deserted, and after talking with friend and one-time preacher Casey (John Carradine), Tom learns that crop failures and dust storms have driven most families from the area, pushing them west with the promise of a new life in California. 

Tom eventually catches up with his family and joins their westward migration, only to find California is far from the Promised Land they were expecting. With no money and little means to obtain it, the Joads shuffle from town to town in search of steady work, hunger and destitution closing in on them each and every day.

To bring the world of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath to the screen, director John Ford (who would win his second of four Academy Awards for his work here) put his audience in the middle of a specific moment in American history. To this end, he recreated not only the tangible, i.e, the clothing and locales, but the intangible as well, the mood and overall feeling of despair most people wrestled with on a daily basis. When he first arrives home, Tom runs into his old neighbor Muley Graves (John Qualen), who, along with Casey, fills Tom in on what's been happening while he was away. In a heartbreaking flashback, we revisit the day Muley and his family were served their eviction papers. At first, Muley refused to leave, promising to shoot anyone who tried to drive him off his land. Once the tractor came, however, he could only step aside and watch as the house he had lived in for so many years was leveled. Muley’s wife and kids traveled west with the rest of the families, but he couldn't bring himself to leave with them. This was his land, and, damn the consequences, he wasn’t going to walk away from it. “I’m just a graveyard ghost now”, Muley tells Tom. Sadly, he wouldn’t be the last "ghost" that Tom would meet on his journey. The road to California was littered with them.

The Grapes of Wrath takes a gloomy, depression-era story and combines it with man's determination to carry on, even under the most extreme circumstances. An unflinching portrait of the injustices many decent families were subjected to, The Grapes of Wrath shines a bright light on a very dark moment in American history.

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