In Great Depression Oklahoma, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) comes home from a four-year bid in prison only to find that his family has picked up and left because the government is retaking their land by force. He finds them at his uncle’s farm, and all twelve of them head out to California where there supposedly is work picking peaches and oranges. Along the way, the Joad numbers dwindle for various reasons: death, cowardice, or trouble with the police. As far as they can tell, the only thing to do is to bow down their heads and try to plow forward for as long as possible.
John Ford won an Oscar for directing this adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, and for good reason: his vision is unsentimental and unyielding. Many American films in the years leading up to World War II were designed to be cheery in order to relieve the gloom cast by the Depression. But Ford saw the power in Steinbeck’s material, and instead shoots the movie like a documentary. Although there are some speeches in the script that are taken directly from the book, there is a spontaneity and authenticity to Ford’s approach that allows the raw devastation of the story to emerge.
Both Fonda and Jane Darwell as Ma Joad were nominated for Oscars for their performances, with Darwell taking the prize (Fonda lost to Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story). The actors have several key scenes together, and they play beautifully off one another. Tom Joad is the role that cemented Fonda’s stay in Hollywood, whereas Darwell had been in the movies for quite some time before playing Ma Joad. After this performance, however, Darwell was certain never to leave the imaginations of her viewers. John Carradine (father of the all the famous Carradine actors) is also memorable as Reverend Casy. His baritone voice and genuine innocence make him perhaps the most sympathetic character in the film.
I referred earlier to some famous lines that come across as a bit stilted in the film. They include Tom’s “I’ll be there” speech and Ma’s “We’re the people” monologue. But the moments that stuck most with me in the film are the ones that lack artifice; this is a testament to Ford’s experience and expertise as a director. Although producer Darryl F. Zanuck immediately chose Ford for the project once he acquired the rights, you can tell that this is very much the work of an auteur (even before the term “auteur” existed).
In addition, these moments are all the more affecting because of the presence of children. When Pa Joad begs a roadside diner for a loaf of bread, his young children stare longingly at the candy canes on the counter. Even though the Joads have only “a dime to spare,” Pa immediately gives up an extra penny to satisfy his children, who are absolutely overjoyed. Scenes like this are the legacy of The Grapes of Wrath, to me. If you want to teach your children to value what they’ve already been given, show them this movie.