Dir. John Ford. Starring Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson
By the time he made The Grapes of Wrath, John Ford had already established himself as one of America’s best directors. Aside from an army of silent movies, he was already the man who had won Best Director for The Informer, which established a precedent in which Ford stole Best Director out from under the noses of the guys who had directed Best Picture winners. (The Grapes of Wrath and The Quiet Man undercut Alfred Hitcock and Cecil B. DeMille, respectively, and The Informer edged out Frank Lloyd. Amusingly, his only Picture-Director sweep came for the movie which everyone knows didn’t deserve it: How Green Was My Valley.) In 1939, while Hollywood was having a miracle year of its own, he made three different but tremendously successful period pieces: Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Stagecoach, the Citizen Kane of American westerns. It’s in 1940, though, with the release of The Grapes of Wrath, that I think John Ford became John Ford. Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay helps this vision, but it’s worthwhile to note that Ford’s Grapes are like raisins compared to the original novel. No one can reasonably expect that the film would attempt to recreate the “every other chapter is a meditation on the country/the Land” system that Steinbeck’s novel adhered to, but it’s never failed to amaze me that Muley Graves, who never leaves Oklahoma nor the first hundred pages of the novel, is a more important character than, say, Al or Rose of Sharon or Uncle John; Noah and Connie, who both leave the family in the novel, may as well not even be in the movie. The Grapes of Wrath has a truly vast scope; its film adaptation narrows it down to remarkable individuals like Tom (Fonda) or Ma Joad (Darwell) in the midst of unimaginable space in a key historical moment. Later Ford movies, even the ones which cast the better part of his repertory, rarely give lasting attention to more than three characters and really use the other two to support John Wayne. The formula is built in The Grapes of Wrath, and only a few times does Ford manage to outdo himself.
The film begins with the shot above, which is telling. As per usual, Ford begins with the land and its connection to that single person who must walk it, or fight with it, or, in this case, surrender to it. Tom will be surrounded by his former neighbors and his family when he returns from the penitentiary, and he’ll find himself perfectly alone in his experience. “Didja bust out?” he’s asked many times, and eventually he figures out that he could save everyone some trouble if he just told them “Parole.” The person’s interest in him dictates how interested we ought to be in them. The first person he meets who knows him is a onetime preacher, Jim Casy (John Carradine), who has lost God’s pulse and now seems to do little more than wander, unable even to pray credibly. (“I’ll say a grace if somebody sets out the food,” he admits, “but my heart ain’t in it.”) Casy, to his credit, does not trouble Tom for more than a few slugs of whiskey; he is willing to be company for him, which the movie recognizes is no small favor, and which will guide Casy’s actions throughout the last act of the movie. The other person who keeps her focus on Tom after finding out that he didn’t break out of jail is his mother, who is mostly concerned with her son’s emotional state. It didn’t make you mean, did it? she asks him, worried before anything else that the best of her children has been ruined by four years in prison. Tom will not be so alone again as he was in the beginning until his last moments in the movie, when he walks alone across a hillside near dawn, as far off in the distance as ever.
Even though the movie skillfully skirts around the issue by giving Muley (John Qualen) a significant role, I think it’s something of a flaw in the movie that the Joads’ struggle is limited mostly to situation as opposed to visual hardship. Both grandparents get sick in front of us, but they don’t stay that way long; neither one lingers long enough to be part of the family’s plans in California. As such they are limited pieces from the “Okie Odyssey” section of the plot, which is itself eclipsed by the struggle the Joads face in California. Instead, it’s the Graves we see pushed off their land, the ones who lose their ramshackle little house to a single good shove from a tractor. The first haunted face of the film’s is Muley, eyes bugging out of his head while the rest of his face lies in shadow. (So much of this movie is filmed in real darkness, and we find ourselves relying on slim, focused light to make out facial expressions belonging to ghosts.) Later on, Ma and Casy and Tom will each take their time in shadow, and of the group only Casy seems to thrive there. He finds the Holy Spirit again in the dark, an outlet for his love of humankind and especially for the ones who need the most help. In the shadows, Tom is almost dumbstruck by Casy’s rediscovered evangelism, in awe of the genuine feeling that Casy readily expresses once more. (The year before, John Carradine was Hatfield, the ex-Confederate officer with patrician pretensions, in Stagecoach. He is so different just a year later as Casy in The Grapes of Wrath that it’s almost baffling.) Of this group, Jane Darwell’s expressions as she looks through a lifetime’s worth of trinkets and forget-me-nots go into the fire or into a pocket. A little figurine of a dog from the St. Louis Exposition of 1904 goes into the pocket. So do a pair of earrings which she hangs up to her ears, and the mournful look on her face when she sees how she’s aged, of how much time has passed, of how much tragedy she’s faced since whenever the last time was she wore them, is spellbinding. Letters and postcards go into the fire by necessity. Of the film’s characters, Ma Joad is the most emotionally aware, the most dutiful. Late in the movie, Pa (Simpson) tells her what we’ve known all along. Ma, he says, I’m not good for much anymore. You have to be the one in charge of the family. It’s a role that she’s been filling since she first appeared on screen. The Grapes of Wrath is a pretty conservative movie in terms of family roles: the man is supposed to be the earner and the head of the household, while the mother is the one who keeps the family tightly knit. (How Green Was My Valley leans into this pretty hard.) What has happened to the Joads and to thousands like them is that there is no longer any earner, and thus the father’s authority as the head of the family has been badly damaged. What remains to the family is itself, and Ma already fills that role as its engine.