Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath) – Best Actor of 1940

Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in "The Grapes of Wrath"

Other Noteworthy Performances: James Cagney (City for Conquest), Charles Chaplin (The Great Dictator), Brian Donlevy (The Great McGinty), W.C. Fields (The Bank Dick), Cary Grant (His Girl Friday), Cary Grant (The Philadelphia Story), Dean Jagger (Brigham Young), Raymond Massey (Abe Lincoln in Illinois),  Laurence Olivier (Rebecca), Stanley Ridges (Black Friday), Edward G. Robinson (Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet), James Stewart (The Shop Around the Corner), Anton Walbrook (Gaslight)

There were few actors in 1940 who could have done justice to the character of Tom Joad. Perhaps James Stewart could have played the part well; he embodied many of the Steinbeck character’s all-American qualities. Gary Cooper could have also done the part justice, though by 1940 he was probably too old to play the part. It is also interesting to think about what a young John Wayne could have brought to the table, a man whose acting ability is often overshadowed by the persona he created.

Despite these conjectures, Henry Fonda is now the quintessential Tom Joad. Fonda has a natural all-American persona: good hearted, hard working, an innate sense of fair play, but naïve, a naivety that will gradually be challenged as Tom and his family get a crash course in the effects of capitalism without regulation. Fonda’s realization of this transformation makes his subtle but powerful performance superior to all the others of 1940.

Tom Joad begins as a man returning to his Oklahoma family farm after several years in prison. He expects to find his family poor but intact. Instead he is stunned by the devastation of the Dust Bowl, crop failures, and bank foreclosures. Families that were once just getting by are now faced with the very real possibilities of destitution and starvation. Though it all feels wrong Tom silently accepts the situation and helps his family pack for their move to California even though it means breaking his parole.

Over the course of his travels, seeing the way his family is treated just for being poor and how employers exploit them, Tom realizes that their poverty has nothing to do with poor decisions his family made, nor is it an accident. He recognizes that powerful forces have conspired to keep people like him poor, to keep them desperate and afraid so they will be grateful for whatever meager wages are offered. He realizes that there are some people profiting handsomely while his little brother and sister go hungry. By the end of the film, when he delivers his now iconic farewell speech to his mother, Tom is as committed to working for social justice as his mentor, the ex-preacher Casey, was.

I’m sure modern day Right Wingers hate the book, but they probably hate the movie even more, partly because Fonda’s performance puts a relatable and unimpeachably American (no hint of dreaded socialism) face on the battle against unregulated capitalism. Fonda’s deft handling of the material illustrates how a common, previously non-political man can become energized into action after years of abuse. He never gives us a phony moment, even when he delivers that admittedly writery farewell speech at the end of the picture. (See the clip above.) That Fonda could make those poetic words feel organic and true speaks to the mastery of Fonda’s craft.

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6 Comments

Filed under 1940, Yearly Best Performances

6 responses to “Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath) – Best Actor of 1940

  1. I completely agree with this choice Jason! Fonda to my eyes and ears gave the greatest performance in 1940, and it’s one that sits with the best work he’s done, and among the most celebrated in American cinema. Again you’ve informed your choice with a scholarly examination, one that peels away the gauze.

    My choices:

    Best Actor: Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath)

    Runners-Up: (in no particular order)

    Charles Chaplin (The Great Dictator)
    Lawrence Olivier (Rebecca)
    Cary Grant (His Girl Friday)
    Brian Donleavy (The Great McGinty)
    Raymond Massey (Abe Lincoln in Illinois)
    James Stewart (The Philadelphia Story)
    Cary Grant (The Philadelphia Story)
    Frank Craven (Our Town)
    Fred MacMurray (Remember the Night)
    Anton Walbrook (Gaslight)
    Herbert Marshall (The Letter)
    Edward G. Robinson (Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet)
    Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Angels Over Broadway)
    James Stewart (Shop Around the Corner)
    Albert Dekker (Dr. Cyclops)
    Errol Flynn (The Sea Hawk)
    Dean Jagger (Brigham Young)
    W.C. Fields (The Bank Dick)
    Robert Young (H.M. Pulham, Esq.)
    James Conquest (City For Conquest)
    Conrad Veidt (The Thief of Baghdad)

    • Thanks Sam. I agree that this was a pretty easy choice. This is Fonda’s best performance and the best (of any category) of 1940. Great and comprehensive round up yourself. I especially love the inclusion of Albert Dekker in Dr. Cyclops, one of those early goofy, campy horror movies. It’s a part he must have had fun with.

  2. I’ve never watched this movie because I still haven’t read the book, though it’s been on my shelves for years and my mom loves it. (She calls it “The Wrath of Grapes,” which never fails to make me laugh.)

    I included your blog on my list of favorites! http://satsumaart.wordpress.com/2011/06/14/some-favorite-blogssites

    • Well of course The Wrath of Grapes is a book well worth reading so I can’t complain that you are holding off on the movie until you can read the book.

      And thank you for including me on your list of favorites! I am in some fine company it appears.

  3. Having now seen this, I was blown away by Fonda’s performance and must agree he is a worthy winner. I do also love James Stewart in ‘The Shop Around the Corner, though, and also Cagney in both ‘City for Conquest’ and ‘The Fighting 69th’, which in all honesty isn’t that good a movie overall, but his performance just breaks your heart. And I’m intrigued to see you mention Edward G Robinson in Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, as that is one I haven’t seen yet but really want to – quite amazing that a film about a treatment for VD was made at all around this period.

    • I obviously agree with you about Stewart and Cagney in City for Conquest, but I have to disagree about Cagney for The Fighting 69th. I thought that was one of his weakest performances. He really overplayed a lot and was all around too obvious. I cringed throughout that movie because of how Cagney played the part.

      I was also intrigued by Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, thinking they would find a way to skirt the entire subject of syphilis, or just hint at it the way they did with pregnancy. But I was shocked to hear Robinson actually use the word syphilis and argue for the importance of his research during a dinner party filled with shocked guests. They then go on to treat the story just like any other of this type, like Pasteur’s research into rabies in The Story of Louis Pasteur.

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