John Steinbeck's powerful 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath told a tale of the effects of the Great Depression on one American family that struck a nerve in many readers. In Hollywood, 20th Century Fox studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck quickly moved to obtain the movie rights and soon put his best director, John Ford, on the project. The film softens Steinbeck's salty language and bleak story, yet I think ultimately the movie has a stronger emotional impact than the book because Ford and celebrated cinematographer Gregg Toland created unforgettable visual images.
The sequence that is indelibly etched in my memory is the one that takes place just outside a California town in what was called a Hooverville, a place where migrant workers lived in squalor in shacks put together from crates and other castoff materials. The terminology was derived from the populist perception that U.S. President Herbert Hoover was indifferent to the plight of people dispossessed by the Great Depression. A well-fed, well-dressed bigshot drives a fancy car into the Hooverville and dangles before the starving migrants the possibility of picking fruit at wages to be specified later. When one of the migrants questions the arrangement, he is accused of being an agitator. Unmindful of the crowded conditions in the camp, a sheriff shoots wildly, killing one of the women.
The movie focuses on the Joad family, Oklahoma sharecroppers who are evicted from their homes. They pile all their belongings on a dilapidated old truck and drive out Route 66, called the "Mother Road" by Steinbeck, to seek work in California, where they encounter a new set of problems. The key members of the Joad family are Tom (Henry Fonda) and Ma (Jane Darwell, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance).
The dialogue in the film, much of which is taken from the novel, always sounds artificially stylized to me. For example, consider Tom Joad’s famous speech as he says farewell to Ma: "A fella ain't got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul—the one big soul that belongs to ever'body. Then … then it don't matter. 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 …" Intellectually, I don't believe Tom would express himself this way, but the acting of Fonda and Darwell is so strong in the scene that I get caught up in the poetry.
The DVD has a feature-length, scene-specific audio track that contains scholarly commentary on the movie by Joseph McBride and Susan Shillinglaw, who alternate speaking in sound bites. McBride has written several movie-related books, including the biography Searching for John Ford: A Life and a book of critical studies co-authored with Michael Wilmington titled John Ford. Shillinglaw, who is the director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University, has edited several books on John Steinbeck. Between McBride and Shillinglaw, I felt I got a lot of information about the film, the novel, Ford, and Steinbeck. However, I didn’t particularly like the format of pingponging back and forth so rapidly between two commentators. I think I would have preferred to have two separate commentary tracks, one with only McBride and the other with only Shillinglaw.