Monday, August 10, 2009

Reeling Backward: "The Grapes of Wrath"

"The Grapes of Wrath" is about the exploitation of people by other people. Since that's unfortunately a perpetual blight on the face of mankind, it's also part of the reason why the great 1940 film version of John Steinbeck's novel remains so timeless.

The film, directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda, feels relevant to current times in myriad ways. The economy isn't as much of a mess now as it was during the Depression of the 1930s. But there's the same sense of our fundamental values having gone out of whack. Corporations that are making healthy profits lay off workers as executives enjoy seven-figure bonuses. People are losing their homes for reasons they often can't even understand, to faceless entities they couldn't name. Whole families are forced to uproot, and like the iconic Joads travel an arduous journey to a destination that may hold no better promise for them.

In Steinbeck's novel, the regular farmers and folks are the sainted salt of the earth, at the mercy of bankers, powerful agricultural consortiums and the roughneck hooligans they hire to keep the workers in line. Although the film is more vague in its presentation of the moneymen, the enforcers are vivid and villainous. The fact that they wear badges and are called "deputy sheriffs" makes them even more contemptible, since their vocation is not upholding the law but preventing its just application.

Another way in which "The Grapes of Wrath" has resonance today is in comparing the Okie farmers' reception to that of illegal immigrants. There's an amazing scene where the Joads stop at a modern gas station to fuel up, and after they've gone the attendants describe them as less than human, even swine, because of their shambling appearance and rickety old truck piled high with belongs and human detritus.

In another scene, the Joads encounter a roadblock. A mob carrying torches and weapons stops them and surrounds the truck, ordering them to turn around. 'We don't want any more Okies like you coming in into our town and taking jobs away from those who already live here,' is the gist of their feeling.

Whatever one thinks about the flood of people crossing our borders (mostly the Mexican one) to find jobs -- I consider myself fairly moderate on this issue, though I'm probably closer to the Minutemen than La Raza -- the treating of other humans as chattel must infuriate anyone with an ounce of empathy.

It seems that wherever they go, the Joads are viewed as undesirable, even dangerous, simply because they are poor and have few prospects.

This was perhaps the greatest performance of Henry Fonda's career, though he would have to wait another 40 years to receive the Best Actor Oscar. As Tom Joad, the eldest son recently paroled from prison for manslaughter, Fonda has a harsher, more defiant aura than we're used to. In his many roles Fonda was usually a reassuring figure, the loyalist and company man, so to see him so convincing in this role as an agitator -- even if a reluctant one -- is striking.

A couple more points. The cinematography is by Gregg Tolland, who would go on to deliver his masterwork, "Citizen Kane," the following year, and in "The Grapes of Wrath" one can see him warming up. The play of darkness and light is hauntingly beautiful, and characters will often move in and out of the light in the midst of a piece of dialogue. John Ford often uses low angles to make certain moments more portentous.

Jane Darwell, as Ma Joad, won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, and deservedly so. Most people remember the rousing speech she gives right before the end credits roll, with the oft-cited line, "We're the people." But she has many other great moments throughout the movie, such as the scene where she burns mementos in the wood stove before they're forced to vacate their home. It's a wordless scene, ripe with power and glory.

4 stars

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