Steinbeck narrates the story of Joad family who were on the road: somewhat similar to Kerouak’s On The Road. Kerouak had Sal Paradiso and a few others hitting the road: they were looking for the soul of America in a Post-war America. America of the Depression period was a world much more simpler. Joad’s family merely wanted to be together as a family. While Kerouak’s narrator was for beatific experience, Steinbeck’s characters, of which Joad’s family is nothing unusual set out for some hard cash that would keep their body and soul together. Sal Paradise’s travels erode into disappointment among people from lower classes, old Negroes and Mexican whores and Joad’s family is onto some bitter disappointment. In the Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck told the story of the migration of thousands of homeless families from the dust bowl of Oklahoma to the promised land of California, the “Golden West.” The misfortunes of the Joad family who, lured by this promise, load their meager belongings onto a dilapidated truck and head west for the land of plenty. What they find is even more bitter poverty and oppression.
Why don’t you go on west to California? There’s work there, and it never gets cold. Why, you can reach out anywhere and pick an orange, Why, there’s always some kind of crop to work in. Why don’t you go there? And the owner men started their cars and rolled away.
For once, a great book is made into a great movie in the 1940 film. Comparing the book with the film one is struck of the differences of creative approach required in turning a book into a successful film. It was Edmund Wilson who noted ‘Mr. Steinbeck’s almost always in his dealing either with the lower animals or with human beings so rudimentary that they are almost on the animal level’. Steinbeck describes the indestructibility of a turtle which is hit by a truck. His introduction of this event is to hint of the survival of the Joads despite of all their vicissitudes. A film can equally well create its inner logic without resorting to the same imagery given in prose. ‘The religious satire, with the single exception, is dropped entirely; the political radicalism is muted and generalized…’(George Bluestone) The love of land, family and human dignity are consistently translated into cinematic images:Greg Toland’s photography lovingly brings out the pictorial values of the land and sky and in his dark silhouettes against a brooding sky he sets the mood and tone. If the book is one of indignation and of moral anger the film seem to linger long after the show for its beauty and cinematic values. Here we see two different purposes and two different results. Both are successful in its own medium.
John Ford takes the second of his four Oscars for Best Director and Henry Fonda establishes himself as a major screen actor in the role of Tom Joad.
There is anger in this film, a deep resentment of the social injustice and downright misery, which America allowed to be visited on thousands of its people. It was a remarkably brave and liberal picture to make at a time when the Dies Committee was already trying to sniff out Communists in Hollywood.
~ Barry Norman, 100 Best Films of the Century
The film chickens out when it comes to the book’s downbeat and shocking ending. Still, it remains a great movie with some great photography from Greg Toland and tremendous acting from the cast.
THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940)
Director: John Ford
Tom Joad: Henry Fonda
Ma Joad: Jane Darwell
Pa Joad: Russell Simpson
Jim Casy: John Carradine
Al Joad: O.Z.Whitehead
Rose of Sharon: Doris Bowden
* Best Director
* Best Supporting Actress (Darwell)
Nominated (7) above plus
* Best Picture
* Best Actor (Ford)
* Best Screenplay
* Best Sound
* Best Editing
John Steinbeck was already a major literary figure when he published The Grapes of Wrath in 1939. Works like Tortilla Flat and Of Mice and Men were already behind him. The Grapes of Wrath won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1940. In his earlier works, John Steinbeck had often returned to the social theme of the troubles of poor and hard working folk.
A feature of the novel are the ‘intercalary’ chapters: descriptive passages that background the story. Chapter 1, for instance, poetically describes the how the last feeble rains give way to fierce heat ,which dries out the parched soil and bakes it into dust. Then winds come and whip up the dust.
‘When the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights could not even spread beyond their own yards. Now the dust was evenly mixed with the air, an emulsion of dust and air. Houses were shut tight, and cloth wedged around doors and windows, but the dust came in so thinly it could not be seen in the air, and it settled like pollen on the chairs and tables, on the dishes.’
Into this nightmare landscape Tom Joad returns home, paroled from prison, having killed a man with a shovel some years before. He finds his family ready to move on, their land useless, everything that cannot be loaded onto their cheap jalopy of a truck sold for a pittance. They are joined on their journey to the west by Jim Casy, a relapsed preacher. On the road they meet other families displaced from the Dust Bowl. Everywhere they go they are reviled.
“Okie use’ ta mean you was from Oklahoma. Now it means you’re a dirty son-of-a-bitch. Okie means you’re scum. Don’t mean nothing itself, it’s the way they say it.”
The family fractures under the strain of their known life lost. Grampa dies on their first overnight stop. Other travelers warn them that California may not be the land of plentiful jobs and white houses they were promised. Deprivation and setbacks dog their journey as they struggle to keep their aging, fragile and overloaded truck on the road.
When they cross the border into California, Tom’s simple and withdrawn older brother, Noah, announces he will go no further and slips off to make a life by the river. As they cross the desert, Grandma dies in the back of the truck but Ma Joad keeps it secret to keep the family going and avoid the attention of the authorities. They arrive at a migrant camp, ‘Hooverville’. Tom manages to get into a fight with local sheriff and Casy takes the rap for him – Tom is violating his parole.
Rose of Sharon (Rosasharn), Tom’s pregnant sister is abandoned by her feckless husband. The family head off to a government camp, where they are at last treated with some dignity. But there is no work and the children are dizzy from hunger. Eventually they drive north and find poorly paid work but discover they are strike breaking. The main agitator turns out to be Casy.
“They say it’s gonna be five cents. We got there … an’ they’re payin’ two an’ a half cents … Now they’re payin’ you five. When they bust this strike – ya think they’ll pay you five?”
A deputy kills Casy and Tom angrily clubs the deputy to the ground. He has to go into hiding while the rest of the family pick peaches. For two and a half cents a box. Tom vows to carry on Casy work, fighting for justice for the workers.
As winter approaches the family are forced to live in an abandoned boxcar. Rose of Sharon gives birth to her baby amidst torrential rain. The swelling river sweeps away their boxcar home and they are forced to shelter in a barn.
The book ends, in the midst of deepest despair, with a gift: literally the milk of human kindness. Rose of Sharon’s beatific sacrifice shines through the bleakness with a message of hope. People this good cannot be defeated.
This is a terrible and indignant book; yet it is not without passages of lyrical beauty, and the ultimate impression is that of the dignity of the human spirit under the stress of the most desperate conditions. (ack:Guardian,George Bluestone )
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