It took courage, a pile of money and John Ford to film the story of the dust bowl and the tribulations of its unhappy survivors, who sought refuge in inhospitable California. Picture is “The Grapes of Wrath,” adapted by Nunnally Johnson from John Steinbeck’s best-seller. It is an absorbing, tense melodrama, starkly realistic, and loaded with social and political fireworks. It is off to a smash boxoffice career, hot on the heels of “Gone With the Wind,” which precedes it by a few weeks into the first runs.
Here is an outstanding entertainment, projected against a heartrending sector of the American scene. Through newreels and rotogravure, the public is familiar with the ravages of drought over a wide agricultural area in Oklahoma, Colorado, the Texas panhandle and western Kansas. The film interprets the consequences of national disaster in terms of a family group–the Joads–who left their quarter-section to the wind and dust and started ‘cross country in an over-laden jallopy to the land of plenty.
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Considering the rumpus caused by the book, Darryl F. Zanuck’s decision to film the yarn could not have been reached without complete realization of the inevitable repercussions. It is not a pleasant story, and the pictured plight of the Joads, and hundreds of other dust bowl refugee families, during their frantic search for work in California, is a shocking visualization of a state of affairs demanding generous humanitarian attention. Neither book nor film gives any edge to citizens of California who are working diligently to alleviate suffering and conditions not of their origination. Steinbeck offers no suggestion. In this respect the film ends on a more hopeful note. Someway, somehow, Ma Joad declares ‘the people’ will solve the unemployment riddle.
First the plow, which stripped the buffalo grass from the great plains. Then the days of broiling sun and hotter nights, the drought which consumed crops and left withered leaves on sickly stems. Came the wind, relentless and dust-laden. Red topsoil in swirls, dry throats and smarting eyes. Dead cattle, waterless wells and an empire laid waste. Then the westward fIight from misery and starvation.
It is all on the screen – everything except the unpalatable Steinbeck dialog, and such other portions of the book which ordinary good taste exclude. The characters are there, and under Ford’s direction a group of actors makes them into living people, whose frustration catches at the heart and throat. There is humor, too, but the film as a whole scores as a gripping theatre experience.
Nothing is more difficult in direction than to create tense dramatic scenes in outdoor settings. Ford succeeds in this throughout, and he does it by every known (and some new) trick of camera and microphone. In a few hundred feet, through a series of cutbacks, he shows the whole dreary account of the dust bowl tragedy, when a half-crazed fugitive (John Qualen), backed into the corner of a deserted room, relates the story of the disintegration of an Oklahoma farm home. In successive shots, the audience sees the parched land, the notification of dispossess, the futile resistance against the land company’s tractors and the wrecked farm buildings. By such means of terse storytelling, Ford zips along at a fast pace. There is unceasing movement during the overland trek. A camera shot through a windshield shows the desert Joshua trees in the background, and reflected close-ups of light, courageous faces of the travelers. There are vistas of distant mountains and gorgeous western skies. More than all else, however, Ford has caught the secret thoughts of the characters, the strong-willed determination of Ma Joad to hold the family together, the fears which grip the men and the rebellion which burns within Tom and Casy.
Views within the California ‘Okie’ camps uncover depraved conditions, and a yell may be expected from that quarter when the film moves into general release. There is nothing sunkist about the way state troopers and local constables push around the unwelcome visitors. Resentment and bitterness are the natural consequences of such behavior. Herein lie the social angles of the film, which makes no pretense to preach but unfolds a story with ruthless skill. Throughout the weird odyssey of the Joads’ it is only in one spot, a U. S. Department of Agriculture camp, that they find sympathy and kindliness. And yet a hundred such camps could not accommodate the army of refugees. A shower bath is not a substitute for a job and food.
In the casting, effort was made to type the characters consistently with preconceived ideas of thousands who have read the book. Henry Fonda does a swell job as Tom and John Carradine is excellent as Casy, the reformed preacher. Jane Darwell gives the family strength and leadership in the mother part. Charley Grapewin’s grandpa is rich in humor and tragedy. Russell Simpson, Dorris Bowden, Zeffie Tilbury and Frank Darien complete the roster.
Gregg Toland’s camera heightens the incidents, and the production generally meets most exacting standards.
“Grapes” is far removed from conventional film entertainment. It tackles one phase of the American social problem in a convincing manner. It possesses an adult viewpoint and its success may lead other producers to explore the rich field of contemporary life which films long have neglected and ignored.
1940: Best Director, Supp. Actress (Jane Darwell).
Nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Henry Fonda), Screenplay, Editing, Sound