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.