August 5, 2011

#23: The Grapes of Wrath

It had always seemed like a good idea to either read or see The Grapes of Wrath, but such dense, morose subject material does not often inspire my fancy. So it was a great surprise and relief to me that John Ford's 1940 adaptation of John Steinbeck's Dust Bowl saga, while dense and morose, also has a lot of heart and even shades of a happy ending, highlighted by solid performances and a wholly American soul.

Company: this one seemed lonely, so I'm alone once more.

Cuisine: how could I chow down on snacks or even make myself a drink for this one? Just didn't seem right. I had a glass of water in hand, and even felt a little guilt about it.

It's Oklahoma in the 1930s, and anyone who took beginning-level American history knows that the Dust Bowl was an incapacitating time for the South. Ravaged by dust storms and drought, large portions of the U.S. were left nearly in ruins, machinery and farmland left under dust. This is the reality inherited by newly paroled felon Tom Joad (Oscar nominee Henry Fonda -- so young!) as the film opens and he walks down a dusty road back to his family after four years in prison.

The people he encounters along the way are rightfully discouraged, as their land has been forcefully taken from them by the deed holders and, in one striking case, their houses are demolished in one fell swoop without warning. Tom's large family has fled their own farm for the sanctuary of their uncle John's farm. Upon his arrival, he finds that this farm also has its trouble: the bank has put a foreclosure on it (contemporary audiences can empathize in our current housing crisis) and the family has made plans to head west to California, hearing promise of abundant work in the fields there.

The Joads are a sturdy bunch, headed by Tom's parents (Russell Simpson and deserving Oscar winner Jane Darwell), but the journey west on Route 66 is a treacherous and painful one in their loaded-down pick-up: two grandparents die, and sorrow and helplessness set in. Having left a gas station along the way, one gas station says to another, "No human being could stand to be so miserable," as though their pain and suffering is a choice rather than a reality of the Dust Bowl. But they persevere. Whittaker Chambers described the Joads in Time magazine as a clan who are "never quite defeated, and their survival is itself a triumph." The film presents one hardship after another, and each time you think they'll give up, they press on against all odds.

When the family finally arrives in California, the prospects are not so sunny: the flyers they saw advertising 800 jobs went out to 15,000 people. They ask anyone they can for work, and the audience starts to recognize the same seedy gentlemen in suits who promise work for less and less money, all the while assuring them that it's the best offer they'll get, despite the terrible pay, and that if they don't take it, someone else will. The Joads are not lazy people, but they don't deserve to be treated the way they are.

This film adaptation arrived on the screen only months after the publication of the novel, and as such, the conditions portrayed were not so far off from reality in 1940. The threat of war was looming but American men and women were not yet being sent to battle, and the prosperity that came with new jobs and morale boosts inspired by the war effort was not yet on its way, so it seems like this time must have been the lowest possible point before things turned around for America. I'm not a history expert but this is my assumption -- anyone care to prove me wrong?

The film functions largely as a call to social justice. The Joads are hardly even fictionalized; their story is hauntingly accurate and detailed. But their sense of right and wrong, even in the leanest of times, is inspiring. Ford chooses to focus heavily on the Joads as a family unit, highlighting their specific struggle as a metaphor, almost a synecdoche (triple word score!), for the plight of the "Okies," where the book shows them in a "family of man" context and includes several characters cut from the film for brevity. Ebert says that the more specific a film is, the more universal it is, so this seems like a wise choice: we are meant to draw conclusions from this particular family's struggles, triumphs, and integrity. But the theme of the universality of man's plight rings true when Tom remarks that "a fellow ain't got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody."

In a cast of such uniform greatness it's almost unfair to single out one performance, but Jane Darwell's Oscar-winning turn as the Joad matriarch deserves special mention, particularly because she really gets all the good speeches, including the rallying cry that concludes the film:

"I ain't never gonna be scared no more. I was, though. For a while it looked as though we was beat. Good and beat. Looked like we didn't have nobody in the whole wide world but enemies. Like nobody was friendly no more. Made me feel kinda bad and scared too, like we was lost and nobody cared.... Rich fellas come up and they die, and their kids ain't no good and they die out, but we keep on coming. We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out, they can't lick us. We'll go on forever, Pa, cos we're the people."

Darwell's intensity and focus seem so simple for all the effort we see, but she is the heart of the film, and it's because of her that you know the Joads will march on, no matter what happens to them. Yes, the character is written well, but it's no small feat for an actress, so well done, Ms. Darwell.

Less inspiring and a little hokier to me was Tom Joad's comforting farewell to his mother after he once again becomes a fugitive, making his presence a threat to the family's well-being.

"I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build, I'll be there, too."

Ma's speech seems like all you'd need to get this message across, and Tom's seems almost too flowery and poetic to be accurate for the character. Regardless, Tom's struggle to leave a legacy to a family he may never see again is touching. Who knows what will become of Tom Joad? As we've seen through out the film, it certainly won't be easy. A very moving film, if you can't stand it and not feel guilty for downing a burger afterwards.

Onto something a little cheerier. A little? A lot. One of the great comedies of all time: Jack "Daphne" Lemmon and Tony "Josephine" Curtis with Marilyn "Sugar" Monroe in Some Like It Hot.

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