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The Grapes of Wrath

by Peter Bogdanovich
August 31, 2011 3:25 AM
8 Comments
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In 1995, when Bruce Springsteen recorded the title song for his moody, introspective album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, he was not only thinking about the leading character of a famous John Steinbeck novel concerning the Depression plight of displaced Okies, but also of Henry Fonda’s unforgettable portrayal of this role in the celebrated 1940 John Ford film version of THE GRAPES OF WRATH (available on DVD). Bruce was wondering what exactly had become of Tom Joad’s ghost, the spirit of that archetypal American idealist who told his mother just before he left the family for good: “...Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there... Wherever there’s a fight so that hungry people can eat, I’ll be there...” Springsteen was lamenting the apparent loss of that special nature which galvanized us, took us to victory in the Second World War--that crusading indignation and anger at injustice. Indeed, it’s difficult to watch The Grapes of Wrath today without a heartsick feeling of nostalgia for the Roosevelt years that seemed to inspire such sentiments.

For this final key scene with Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, Fonda would tell me, Ford would not allow the two actors to rehearse it for him, but only allowed them to play it in front of the camera, and the very first take is the one in the picture. “Of course, by the time we got to it,” Fonda said, “we were just chomping at the bit to do the scene.” It was Ford’s way, Fonda explained, of insuring the absolute freshness he strove to get in all his work. When Fonda’s Tom returns at the start of the film from several years in prison and sees his mother again, the actor said he wanted to kiss her cheek, but Ford stopped him, had them shake hands instead, saying: “Country people don’t kiss.”

Ford’s movie, for which he received his second of four Academy Awards as best director (plus two Oscars for war documentaries), is certainly among the darkest, most anti-establishment ever produced by a major Hollywood studio (20th Century-Fox), shot on actual locations in sharp ultra-contrasted black-and-white by the legendary Gregg Toland (of Citizen Kane fame). Since during his lifetime Ford was America’s most honored director—-four New York Film Critics Awards to go with the still record number of Oscars, plus being the first filmmaker ever to receive our country’s highest civilian recognition, the Medal of Freedom-—and since he was, as well, the most highly respected among his peers, one could as easily lament the contemporary loss of the kind of economically minded, visually eloquent directorial professionalism for which he stood. He would invariably describe himself as “a hard-nosed director” just doing “a job of work.”

That he was also one of the few poets of the screen was a bonus. Orson Welles famously called him “a poet and a comedian;” he continued: “With Ford at his best, you get a sense of what the earth is made of.” Recently, it was announced that Jack Ford will also be the first director to be celebrated with a U.S. postage stamp (a drawing of his face—not a great likeness—side by side with an iconic image from The Searchers) and certainly it is most appropriate to pay him homage yet again for the enduring legacy he left behind. Essentially, he was a moving balladeer of the lost family—-so many of his films, like The Grapes of Wrath, deal with the dissolution of a family—-and by extension, a way of life, a country.

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8 Comments

  • Robert Tan | October 11, 2011 4:02 AMReply

    Personally, "Grapes of Wrath" is the best Hollywood movie ever made. I must have watched the movie 10 times, and each time I am moved to tears. Moved by the sufferings of those decent downthrodden Americans during the Great Depression, moved by the bonds between Tom Joad and Ma Joad.....The excellent screenplay based on John Steinback's novel by the same name, superb acting especially by Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell, classic directing by John Ford, they all deserved the Oscars and more. Too bad, Hollywood does not make movies like that any more.

  • Rick Allen | October 1, 2011 2:10 AMReply

    What a beautiful and evocative review - you don't have to be a Springsteen fan for that first paragraph to make you search out The Grapes of Wrath ... but at this particular juncture in America, the movie, Tom Joad and this terrific piece will all make us miss that quintessentially American spirit, which now can be seen motivating those in Tahir Square, Syria, and elsewhere. Read Peter's review, watch the film, and reawaken your indignation at injustice.

  • sandy | September 13, 2011 10:01 AMReply

    buen post!

  • Jon O. | September 10, 2011 2:32 AMReply

    BTW, Peter, my wife and I were backstage at the Rosemont Theater in Chicago for Springsteen's "Ghost of Tom Joad" show in '95. I saw you there as well, and badly wanted to approach you to talk John Ford... I reluctantly accepted the fact that discretion is the better part of valor, and decided not to be just another bothersome fan. It was a priceless performance by Springsteen, though.

  • Jon O. | September 10, 2011 2:09 AMReply

    Ford's directing Fonda (Tom Joad) to shake Darwell's (Ma Joad's) hand after getting out of prison was a masterstroke which pays off at the end of the film when the characters say goodbye to each other. Ma says, "We ain't the kissin' kind, but..." and she gives her son a tender kiss on the cheek, making the scene all the more poignant and heartwrenching as Tom walks off, over the hill. (What an incredible performance by Jane Darwell, for which she won a well-deserved Oscar!)

    Ford originally chose to have Fonda, as Wyatt Earp, shake hands with Cathy Downs at the end of "My Darling Clementine," but producer Darryl Zanuck, after seeing the reaction of preview audiences, inserted a shot of Fonda kissing her on the cheek. Watching the relationship of the two characters slowly develop throughout the film, I think Zanuck should have left well enough alone, as the handshake was more in character for Earp, as portrayed by Fonda. Ford certainly knew what he was doing.

  • Blake Lucas | September 4, 2011 6:23 AMReply

    Peter, you know how much I am one who appreciates this blog and your always wonderful writing on classical cinema. And I know the others who follow it and comment feel the same way.

    So it's just in the spirit of helpfulness that I want to point out that I believe you can avoid things like that September 3 comment. It's happened a number of times here. I read other blogs and there is a feature of comment moderation that can be put in place that could keep stuff like this out. As I experience it, people posting comments are moderated by you the first time and then when you have done it once and know they have a legitimate interest in what you are writing about and are contributing comments that pertain, they don't need to be moderated--unless they have had computer glitches or cleanups and need to reset their information, as I've experienced a few times.

    We all agree I know that "The Grapes of Wrath" or any other film you are writing about here deserves better , and especially that you deserve a smoothly flowing comments section. So just offering that I do think you can fix this problem and might ask someone with the technical expertise to get it set up if you need to.

  • Christopher Stilley | September 1, 2011 3:20 AMReply

    Ford was extremely gifted in his craft,whatever his system was,he,and likewise John Huston,Alfred Hitchcock had a knack for characters and creating scenes that came off natural and rang as true..That was a distinctive mark of all 3,but with Ford there was often the all american edge that was his alone.It would be interesting to know just what the main ingredient is that allows him to pull it off 90 percent of the time..So often I think certain people are simply "blessed"with a talent that shows up mysteriously inside their product.

  • Casey Maddren | August 31, 2011 9:29 AMReply

    The Grapes of Wrath is a wonderful movie, and one of the many that make me skeptical of Ford's repeated claim that he was just doing "a job of work". The passion and intelligence that come through so strongly in the film belie his assertion that he was nothing more than a "hard-nosed director". I don't think Ford was ever really honest about the way he saw himself. You don't choose projects like The Informer, Mary of Scotland, The Long Voyage Home or Cheyenne Autumn if you're just a guy doing a job. Ford was famously cantankerous when talking about his work (as you know well), and seems to have been really uncomfortable discussing it as art. But I think Ford (and others, including Hawks and Wellman) did see himself as an artist, no matter how much he resisted the term. He would never have made a film as controversial, or as passionate, as The Grapes of Wrath if he was just a guy doing "a job of work".

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