Director: John Ford
Starring: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Charley Grapewin, Dorris Bowdon, and Russell Simpson
Academy Awards (1941):
Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Jane Darwell
Best Director: John Ford
Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actor in a Leading Role: Henry Fonda
Best Film Editing: Robert L. Simpson
Best Picture: Darryl F. Zanuck, Nunnally Johnson
Best Sound, Recording: Edmund H. Hansen/20th Century Fox SSD
Best Writing, Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson
Tom Joad (Fonda) returns to his family’s farm in Oklahoma after spending four years in prison for homicide. He finds that his family has packed their things and is preparing to move to California in search of work. Their journey is representative of many farming families of The Great Depression as they had to deal with homelessness, starvation, greedy company owners, and crooked cops as they searched for a means to provide for their family.
This is an interesting film, to say the least. The Joad family here, representative of many families of the time, deal with a wide array of issues and problems: starvation, corporate greed, desperation. At times it was sickening to see to what lengths those in charge would go to maintain control and keep their workforce more or less as indentured servants.
It’s sad how some of those injustices still exist today.
Henry Fonda does great as there strong-willed, though naive at times, leader of the Joad family. Something Ford did right with this film is how he didn’t take away from the main message of the book for the sake of following the Hollywood formula. Tom is a flawed hero: dealing with his anger and at times it getting the best of him. In this film Fonda finds that balance of knowing how to be calm, but also to lose his calm when facing certain injustices. He lost the Best Actor Oscar to Jimmy Stewart for The Philadelphia Story. I’m not sure the Academy got that one right though.
Though Tom Joad is the upfront leader of the family, Ma Joad (Darwell) is really where the buck stops with the family. She puts Tom, and anyone else for that matter, in their place and is the strong voice of reason and rationality most of the time. The only other film I’ve seen Jane Darwell in is Mary Poppins, and since she plays the bird lady in that film, The Grapes of Wrath is the only one I’ve seen that’s really showcased her acting talent.
Needless to say, she nailed this one. I can’t imagine anyone else doing a better job. Her command of her scenes is unquestioned, and her constant awareness of the state of the family really grounds the story.
At just over two hours, The Grapes of Wrath does a good job of advancing the story and it kept me engaged throughout. I had mixed feelings about the sometimes short cut scenes. There would be a fade in, a 15 to 20 second scene, and cut out. Though I’m not generally a fan of that, Ford does a good job with these in making the most of the limited screen time for some of these scenes. They serve their purpose, advance the plot, and communicate the message.
Having neither seen nor read The Grapes of Wrath, and honestly not knowing a whole lot about the story, I was impressed with this film. It works well as a historical look at the times and attitudes of farmers from The Great Depression, and presents compelling social observations. Strong acting and directing communicate the message of Steinbeck’s book and remaining an entertaining film. While I probably won’t read the book (and from what I’ve read the movie’s ending is a watered-down version of the book’s), I wouldn’t entirely rule it out. I’d probably watch this again as a teaching tool in talking about the time period.
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.