The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

brooke You’d think that having grown up in California I might’ve known a little of the history behind this movie. You’d be wrong.

casey The Depression really sucked.

brooke Apparently.

casey That’s my takeaway: Don’t live during the Great Depression.

brooke Well, I think we can wrap this up and go to bed. Lesson learned.
Or I guess we could talk about the movie…

casey Let’s do this. The Grapes of Wrath, based on the Steinbeck novel you had to read in high school, begins by introducing Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), recently paroled after four years in prison and returning home to meet his sharecropper family in Oklahoma. He befriends Jim Casy (John Carradine), a disaffected preacher, and they soon learn the Joad family has been forced off their farm, the depression and years of drought having made them unprofitable tenants to the distant land owners. Tom and Casy manage to meet the family just as they’re about to depart for California, where there’s supposed to be work. The ten of the pile into a rickety truck and head off, joining a migration that included thousands of dispossessed and unemployed Americans.

The film is about the struggle to hold the family together as they deal with poverty, hostile locals, and thuggish police seeking to root out “red agitators.”

brooke Care to explain what red agitators are?

casey Technically Communists (with echoes from the first Red Scare), but really anyone who pushes for better wages or speaks against worker mistreatment. The depression has hit California hard, and big landowners are happy to use the influx of labor to drive wages down and play workers against each other. Capitalist gonna capitalize, ya know?

brooke The whole movie paints a picture of capitalism at its nastiest.

casey Which ultimately drives the arcs of both Casy and Tom.

brooke Fun fact: Both are both played by actors who famous kids. John Carradine is the father of David Carradine, and Henry Fonda produced the one and only Jane Fonda.
Back to business though…
Casy and Tom are fascinating characters. Both outsiders in their own ways, both looking at their situation in California as pragmatic idealists.
They have to play their part to support themselves (especially Tom, who’s tied to his family), but both work to affect change for others.

casey I think it’s about their journey toward idealism, since that’s not what drives them at the beginning. Tom is initially wary about violating parole and encouraged to keep his head down when obvious injustice is happening. There’s an early scene where he chases away a group of hungry kids in a transient camp, more concerned about seeing his family fed. Meanwhile, Casy rediscovers some purpose as a worker organizer, and a culminating event with the two of them pushes Tom in a more radical direction.

brooke Right. He first reacts to cops as a shy parolee, and gradually becomes a defiant activist-in-the-making. It brings a lot of depth to the character, and Ford played it very well.

casey All this makes it sound like a bleak and serious movie, but there are funny and even joyful moments too. It’s not quite The Walking Dead.

brooke I don’t know, it was pretty sad. The tone is definitely meant to be dour and depressing, especially with how many scenes were filmed in shadow.

casey So it’s easy to understand why this is an important film, but it’s also entertaining. Did you like it?

brooke It was a little long (and felt long), but I really enjoyed it. I didn’t expect to get so attached to the characters or learn so much about my own state’s history. I liked the interplay between characters. Even short conversations tell a lot about who they are. Like the diner waitress who sells the Joad children candy at a 90% discount, or the gas station attendants who make snide comments as the family piles into the car.

grapes-wrath

casey There’s a lot of humanity in many scenes. My only criticisms are that the few actions scenes are stiff, and the parts where the movie pauses to have a character recite a speech about the movie’s themes feel hokey. But The Grapes of Wrath draws you in, and for a modern viewer with a decent amount of material comfort it’s pretty damned humbling.

brooke Humbling is exactly the word. You can’t exactly walk away complaining about small living spaces or a hard job.
Not that I’m going to stop complaining about those things (it’s a tough habit to break), but it’s the kind of movie that makes you think.

casey KIDS THESE DAYS

brooke And how about the Joads as a family unit? I found their unity one of the most compelling aspects of the movie.

casey I appreciated the role of Ma Joad (Jane Darwell). Early on she seems to be just along for the ride, but she demonstrates strength that becomes more apparent as the story progresses.

brooke Absolutely. Ma Joad is the glue that holds the family together. Her love for each family member is unconditional, and we even see it extend outside the family.

casey It just goes to show: when the relentless, unfeeling forces of capital alienate you from your land and labor, it helps to have good people around you. And maybe a labor union, too.

brooke How about the progress in cinematography between one of our recent classic movies, City Lights, and Grapes of Wrath? Because we’ve taken a 9 year leap forward and the difference is dramatic.

casey Now we’ve got lengthy tracking shots, more close-ups and long shots, dark scenes that are still intelligible, and a real spoken soundtrack! I look forward to watching more movies from the early 20th century, because it’s crazy how much we take for granted that might have been completely novel at the time.

brooke Don’t you worry, we’ll get to those soon enough. In the meantime, witnessing these jumps in technology is a welcome consequence, albeit unintended, of watching movies from successive decades.

casey Any final thoughts?

brooke  I think for me, the most interesting thing was seeing the hostile climate against migrant workers that I grew up with in play out in similar ways. Growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, I heard a lot of the same things about field laborers as in this movie. It made me wish I knew California’s history better. I remember doing a report on central California (where the most fertile farmlands are) in fourth grade and having a hard time coming up with material. This kind of history would have been great to dig into, but I was completely unaware of it.

And it’s worth mentioning that the Library of Congress decided to preserve Grapes of Wrath in the US National Film Registry back in 1989.

casey Nowadays there are ethnic and language elements that weren’t necessarily at play then, but maybe this movie could create sympathy for people in similar circumstances today. We’re all trying to get by—some of us have less than others—and it can’t happen when suspicion and fear are the driving emotions.

brooke Absolutely true.
So two lessons learned :
1. Don’t live during the Great Depression
2. Be nice to migrant workers
I think I can safely say that we both recommend this movie.

casey Oh man, I could also go on about how midwestern migration created a culture of auto-dependence fostered by the literal loss of everything but their cars, and how that contributed to the rise of driving culture in California…but instead, I’ll shut up and repeat that it’s a movie worth seeing.

brooke And like the movie, this post will end hinting at that culture without going into too much detail.

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