GRAPES OF WRATH, THE - DVD review

...one of the most powerful films Hollywood ever made, and it's just as moving today as it was all those years ago.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

So what if the movie only gives us a portion of John Steinbeck's classic novel, leaving out his controversial ending. So what if the story line sometimes meanders. So what if some of the acting by current standards seems a tad stilted or overly theatrical. So what if parts of it are sentimental. So what if it's in black-and-white and monaural. John Ford's 1940 production of "The Grapes of Wrath" is one of the most powerful films Hollywood ever made, and it's just as moving today as it was all those years ago.

Steinbeck was an unflagging champion of the common man. "Tortilla Flat," "In Dubious Battle," "Of Mice and Men," "Cannery Row," "The Pearl," "The Red Pony," "East of Eden," you name it; they were naturalistic stories about the working class and the poor, with "The Grapes of Wrath" (1939) his greatest achievement, helping to earn him a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.

But it wasn't all that easy to bring the book to the screen. The novel--about the plight of Oklahoma farmers forced off their homesteads during the Great Depression and coming to California's San Joaquin Valley, only to find added hardships in the "land of milk and honey"--had been the subject of much debate and concern. It was branded "leftest" by conservative business interests of the day and sometimes even "communist" propaganda, infuriating many of the country's banks and corporate farm interests who claimed Steinbeck was exaggerating a problem that didn't exist. The proposed screen adaptation so annoyed the Associated Farmers of California that they called for a boycott of all Fox studio films. Steinbeck's own safety was threatened.

The movie company took pains to assure the public that the film was not political or taking sides, but, of course, the film does side plainly with the downtrodden "Okie" farmers. Steinbeck himself loved Ford's realization of the work, saying that it had "a hard, truthful ring. No punches are pulled. In fact, it is a harsher thing than the book by far."

The story concerns one particular Oklahoma family pushed off their land, the Joads. A combination of harsh droughts and harsher bankers forced sharecroppers to abandon the homes they had been living on for generations. Many of their places were literally bulldozed away. The Joads, faced with no prospect of government assistance and the serious possibility of starvation, answer the call of handbills claiming the need for 800 pickers in California. Like thousands of other despairing folks, they pack up the family and head West, discovering in the "Golden State" a jarring reality: too many migrant farmers and not enough jobs. What's more, without tough minimum wage laws or strong farm labor unions, they find themselves at the mercy of the big farming interests, who can afford to pay workers a wage well below what they promise, take it or leave it. Living conditions were ragged for these migratory workers, sanitary issues and housing were abysmal, and strike busters and armed guards were stationed at most transient camps.

Before the studio made the film of Steinbeck's novel, the studio boss, Darryl F. Zanuk, insisted upon sending private detectives to check up on the shape of things in actual California migrant camps and see if Steinbeck wasn't exaggerating the situation. The detectives found conditions were actually worse than Steinbeck had described them in his book.

Ford had originally wanted either Tyrone Power or Don Ameche to play the pivotal role of Tom Joad, the young man just released from prison who returns to his family after serving four years for homicide, but the part went to Henry Fonda, a role that made him a star. Fonda exemplified the common man and brought to the character a greater intensity than probably anyone expected. Fonda's Tom Joad is a man who says at the beginning of the movie wants only "to get along without shoving anybody, that's all," but who ends up a willing martyr to the cause of human rights. Through the course of the story, Tom develops an interest outside himself, a readiness to stand up to the giants of oppression and fight for the rights of the little man. He becomes, in other words, a hero in every sense of the word.

Equally stirring in their roles are Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, the strength of the family, winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress; John Carradine as the former preacher who has "lost the Spirit" but who gains a new vitality in his fight for justice; Charley Grapewin as Grandpa Joad, effecting one of the most poignant scenes in the film as the old man who refuses to leave the farm he was born and raised on; and John Qualen as Muley, a neighboring farmer driven mad by the indifference of the world around him.

The production was given top priority by Twentieth Century Fox, with studio chief Zanuck overseeing the project himself. The script was written by Nunnally Johnson, who co-produced the picture, and the cinematography was handled by Gregg Toland. Johnson would go on to write "The Keys of the Kingdom," "Tobacco Road," "The Gunfighter," "The Desert Fox," "The Three Faces of Eve," and "The Dirty Dozen," among many others, while Toland would photograph "Citizen Kane" the next year.

The script omits the final chapters of Steinbeck's novel and rearranges a final scene (ironically directed by Zanuck, not Ford), but the film manages an affecting nobility of heart and nerve that seems perfect for the occasion. Toland's camera work captures all of the dust and dirt of the roads and land, while elevating the art of black-and-white photography to its some of its greatest heights. And Ford uses Toland's cinematography, with its emotionally framed long shots and frugality of close-ups, to evoke a keen sense of isolation, desperation, and eventual community. It's only when the story absolutely needs close-ups that Ford moves in for them, and then they are all the more effective for their emphasis. The film results in conveying an almost documentary-like atmosphere, yet at the same time a most personal tone; a strong political statement and warm human drama. It's a splendid accomplishment.

The hardships of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the poverty-stricken migrant farmers, the transient camps, the rise of labor unions, and the power of the people are all touched upon in the movie, as they were in the book. In the century before, Mark Twain had said that "Human beings can be awful cruel to one another," and, in fact, things had not changed by the 1930s. That people in America could be thrown into the street and left to starve was a circumstance hard for a lot of better-off Americans to believe. Public and government apathy toward the plight of America's underclasses might have gone unnoticed longer than it did had it not been for the attention Steinbeck's book, and to a lesser extent the movie, brought to the problem.

"The Grapes of Wrath" is inspiring and touching, a story of family togetherness, family separation, and the need for unity among all people. Moreover, I have to admit to always getting teary-eyed when Ma Joad goes through her meager possessions trying to decide what she should take with her when she's forced to leave her home. Any film that can move me to tears is a film I figure has to be reckoned with; and when it's accompanied by Steinbeck's supreme humaneness, Ford's unabashed sentiment, Fonda's and Darwell's superb acting, Johnson's fine screen adaptation, Toland's spectacular cinematography, and Zanuck's determination to make a quality product, I find it impossible to resist.

Video:
The movie was digitally restored for DVD from the best two surviving elements the Fox studio could find, the original camera negative having long been lost. The result is not quite in the category of the best, state-of-the-art restoration, but it's plenty good. The 1.33:1 ratio, black-and-white presentation is largely free of age marks, deterioration, flecks, specks, lines, or specks. Darker areas of the screen are perhaps too dark to admit much inner detail, but blacks are solid and true, and object delineation is fairly sharp. Moiré effects are sometimes noticeable, despite a respectably high bit-rate transfer. All in all, Gregg Toland's stunning B&W cinematography shows up splendidly under the circumstances.

Audio:
The sound comes in its original monaural, unfortunately presented in two channels, and in a 2.0 stereo remix. In both instances background noise has been largely eliminated, but from there the choice is yours. The advantage of the stereo is that it spreads out the sound a bit more widely between the front channels, providing a more modern listening experience. With it comes a slight increase in brightness and edginess, however. The original mono appears smoother, if more confined. In any case, whichever choice you make, you're getting a soundtrack that is better than anyone has probably ever heard it before.

Extras:
Rather than use two separate discs, this Fox Studio Classic release uses both sides of a single disc. The first side contains the feature film, plus an erudite audio commentary with film scholar Joseph McBride and Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw. One of the commentators gives us a behind-the-scenes look at how and why the film was made the way it was, while the other provides us a glimpse of the film as it was adapted to the screen from the novel. It's fascinating if a bit slow and bookish for non-film buffs. Side one concludes with a U.K. Prologue to the film, helping to explain to British audiences how the Depression affected the American Midwest; thirty-two scene selections; and spoken languages and subtitles in English and Spanish.

Side two contains a forty-five minute documentary on the film's producer, "Darryl F. Zanuck: 20th Century Filmmaker," made for A&E's Biography. Also included are three Movietone News drought reports from 1934, plus some news outtakes, demonstrating how closely Hollywood captured the hardships of Depression life; a featurette of President Roosevelt lauding the motion picture industry at an Academy fete; a restoration comparison; a stills gallery; a theatrical trailer; and five additional trailers for other films in Fox's Studio Classics line.

Parting Thoughts:
"The Grapes of Wrath" is a worthy addition to Fox's burgeoning Studio Classics lineup. The movie was nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1940, including Best Picture (Darryl F. Zanuck and Nunnally Johnson), Best Actor (Henry Fonda), Best Director (John Ford), Best Supporting Actress (Jane Darwell), Best Editing (Robert L. Simpson), Best Sound (Edmund H. Hansen), and Best Writing (Nunnally Johnson). It won two: Best Director and Best Supporting Actress. The winner for Best Picture that year was Hitchcock's "Rebecca," which, much as I love it as pure entertainment, does not compare in importance to "The Grapes of Wrath." Maybe the Academy should consider waiting and making their choices after, say, fifty or sixty years have passed.

Ratings

Video
7
Audio
6
Extras
7
Film Value
10