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.
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.