The Grapes of Wrath – Best Pictures of 1940 (#2)

The Joads at the beginning of their ill-fated journey

John Ford’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath comes in at number two rather than number one only because the movie is more timid than the book. We feel the watchful eyes of the Hayes Office preventing the movie from becoming a truly great masterpiece. As a result we often don’t connect the lingering sting of poverty with the heartless economic system that requires poverty to keep wages low the way we did in the book.

Still, Ford managed to make a great movie that may not indict capitalism run amok as strongly as Steinbeck did, but it is still a powerful testament to unchecked capitalism’s dehumanization of the poor.

The movie is guided by Ford at the top of his game; his direction is confident and determined. How easy it would have been for the material to descend into eye-rolling sentimentality or preachy vitriol. But the story of the Joad family – evicted from their family farm in Oklahoma and making their way to California to the promise of work – never crosses those lines. These are proud, simple people (and not simple as in stupid, but simple as in uncomplicated by the complexities of our postmodern world) who would never think to question the system. They wouldn’t even think of trying to change it; all they can do is wade through it as best they can, no matter how unjust. When the ex-preacher Casey explains the importance of organizing agricultural workers into a union, he is mostly met with suspicion. Unions don’t gel with their conception of a traditional employer/employee relationship, but they will also learn, over time, that those traditional work ethics don’t apply. Exploitation is institutionalized here.

Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell

Even when the troubled ex-con, Tom Joad gives his farewell speech to his mother (now a classic moment in film history), it is heartfelt rather than sermonizing, despite the obvious ring of a writer’s hand in the words. Henry Fonda’s sensitive performance is, after Ford’s direction, the second anchor of the film. Like James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Fonda’s Tom is the embodiment of the ideal American: hard working, fair, respectful. But this does not mean he is without his flaws. His anger often gets the better of him and as he navigates the turbulent world of transient workers. Who’s anger wouldn’t flare at seeing already poor people cheated and taken advantage of?

The Grapes of Wrath is a classic of American cinema that marks a shameful series of episodes of the Great Depression. Our journey with the Joads into deeper and more unshakable poverty is heartbreaking and unforgettable. Unfortunately the movie is still a relevant invective against the triumph of avarice over brotherhood, selfishness over empathy.

So this leaves one last slot. Can you guess what my choice for the best of the year is? And let me know what your favorite is.

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12 Comments

Filed under 1940, Yearly Best Pictures

12 responses to “The Grapes of Wrath – Best Pictures of 1940 (#2)

  1. Well Jason, to answer your question, while I am almost tempted top pose FANTASIA in view of your great love for animation, I will balk on that because of the #10 designation for PINOCCHIO. Your greatest love of all is for comedy, so I think it’s HIS GIRL FRIDAY (Hawks) for the top spot.

    Year the Hays code was watching the way Ford’s movie proceeded, but the severity turned out to be marginal. The fact is that by any barometer of measurement it IS a towering masterpiece, and for me is absolutely the best film of 1940, and Ford’s masterpiece. I’ve read teh novel, and found this one of the greatest adaptations in the history of cinema. There is so much I can say, but you’ve really done a great job framing it here.

    • Jon

      Like you said Jason, it’s a classic of American cinema and if you want to compile a list of films that are landmark “American” films, ones that capture the American spirit, this one would be on the short list. I absolutely love Steinbeck and his book, and I do understand limitations on the film. What remains though is a deeply felt and well-realized adaptation regardless of what was left out. Fonda is great and Ford is in top form. If I had to guess the #1, I would also say His Girl Friday, although I’m not sure you mentioned The Great Dictator yet. Not sure what side of the fence you will fall on this. I will give you my top 5 or 10 in your next post.

      • I absolutely agree with what you say. I also loved the book though I enjoyed the book more than the movie. The limitations aren’t fatal and, my criticisms notwithstanding, still makes for an effective movie.

        I will admit that I’ve never been a big fan of The Great Dictator, though I understand many people love it. I’ve always appreciated the effort and some of the political satire, but in the end I just never found it all that funny. I’d be interested to see your list and if this one would appear on it. I’d like to hear what you think about it.

    • You are right, this is a masterpiece. In looking over what I wrote it looks like I’m saying it isn’t a masterpiece. I just meant to say it could have been better had it translated more of Steinbeck’s fervor. Nevertheless, it is still a great movie, one that I know you love.

      And good prediction for the top spot….

  2. Can you imagine if they had filmed the original ending to the book? I saw the movie before I read the book…and I remember getting to those final pages and being totally floored. Whereas the film ended on a moment of dignified hope and determination, the book was grimly apocalyptic. I don’t know if they would have the guts to film the original ending to the book today let alone back in 1940. Both are amazing pieces of work.

    • I remember when I finished reading the book and I immediately knew there was no way anyone in Hollywood ever even considered using it. I also saw the movie first and had the same reaction you did. But I guess I got a slightly more upbeat message from the end. Yes, it’s grim, but I saw something hopeful in the last act of sacrifice for survival (of, if I remember correctly, a total stranger).

      And I don’t think they would have the guts to film this at all today — with or without that ending. It’s too overtly socialistic and today’s political climate favors adaptations of Atlas Shrugged, which no one reads except teenagers and college kids who don’t know any better.

  3. Cristiane

    I’ll add my voice to the chorus guessing His Girl Friday. My personal favorites are Remember the Night (Barbara Stanwyck is my favorite actress of all time) and The Great McGinty. Perhaps you can tell I love Preston Sturges… I know he hated what Mitchell Leisen did to his script for Remember the Night, but I think Leisen directed it beautifully.

    • I also love Sturges, though I have to admit that I never much cared for The Great McGinty. I do however like Remember the Night. I was able to overcome my dislike for Fred MacMurray in that one.

  4. Cristiane

    I forgot to add that I completely love your list so far – the only one I haven’t seen is, oddly enough, The Grapes of Wrath. I’m so glad you put the 1940 Pride and Prejudice on the list – I know those costumes aren’t the right period, but aren’t they GORGEOUS! Olivier was pretty gorgeous himself. I’m also a big fan of the 1940 Gaslight – much as I love Bergman, Boyer and Cotten in other things, I think the British cast is much “righter” for those roles, particularly Diana Wynyard, who has the fragility that Bergman lacks. And, man, do I love Anton Walbrook – what a great actor.

    • Thanks Cristiane. I’m glad to hear you have been enjoying the list. I absolutely agree with you about Gaslight. I have a feeling that if I were to revisit these lists several years down the line this one would move up a few spots. The more I think about it the more I like it.

      Oh, and it is well worth taking the time to see The Grapes of Wrath!

  5. Just to say that I have now seen this film, and returned to read your review. I agree with you that it is a masterpiece, one of the finest Fords I’ve seen so far, but that at times you do feel the Hays office interfering. All the same, the criticism of the capitalist system pushing the poor families from one town and one shanty camp to another comes across loud and clear. A chilling moment when the two guys at the petrol station discuss the way the “Okies” live and decide they obviously “don’t know any better”.

    I don’t remember the novel in detail, as it is many years since I read it, but I do vividly remember the feeling of it. The movie’s ending does feel a bit upbeat, but can’t take away the bleakness of what has gone before.

    • Yes you are right, the criticism of capitalism is obvious in the movie, but I think it is still watered down from the novel. I’m not sure I agree the end of the movie is upbeat exactly, maybe it’s hopeful — certainly more hopeful than the bleak end of the book (which I’m not sure, as I’ve discussed below, that even today anyone would be ballsy enough to recreate it).

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