Humanities Festival
10:37 pm
Mon March 31, 2014

Reflection: Vintage Wine Of ‘The Grapes Of Wrath’ Remains Fresh And Piquant

From April 1-6, the 2014 Greater St. Louis Humanities Festival will explore “Migration and Mobility.” A series of programs will examine connections among migration, immigration and culture, locally and globally. Most events are free. For more information, visit the festival website.

As part of the festival, Cinema St. Louis and the St. Louis Public Library will co-present a free screening of “The Grapes of Wrath” at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, April 6, at the Central Library Auditorium, 1301 Olive St. The film is introduced and discussed by Gaylyn Studlar, the David May distinguished professor in the humanities and director of the Film and Media Studies Program at Washington University.

To accompany the screening, Cliff Froehlich, executive director of Cinema St. Louis, has written an essay on “The Grapes of Wrath,” which is excerpted here. A full version is found on the CSL website.

Seventy-five years down the road – Route 66, to be precise – “The Grapes of Wrath” continues to transport us to relevant and revelatory destinations.

Credit Wikipedia

When published in April 1939, John Steinbeck’s novel about the Joad family’s torturous journey from the arid desolation of Dust Bowl Oklahoma to the supposed Edenic paradise of California generated such outsized attention that the reaction qualifies as a mid-20th-century version of going viral.

Widely celebrated – the book sold 430,000 copies in 1939 alone and won both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award – “The Grapes of Wrath” was also vociferously reviled in some quarters for its radical politics and frank language. A significant number of libraries and cities banned the book. (The board of the East St. Louis library voted to burn its three copies on the courtyard steps before quickly rescinding the order because of “the national commotion it had aroused.” The library instead opted for a less incendiary course, placing the book in its “Adults Only” section.) The uproar likely further increased awareness and sales of “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Despite studio wariness over the book’s controversial content, especially its unabashedly pro-labor stance, Hollywood interest was perhaps inevitable given “The Grapes of Wrath’s” phenomenal popularity. 20th Century Fox’s film adaptation went into production in October 1939 and was released in January 1940, an eye-blink eight months after the book’s publication. Like the novel, the movie earned widespread praise, with the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics citing it as Best Picture, and the Academy nominating the film for seven Oscars (with wins for John Ford as best director and Jane Darwell as best supporting actress).

Both book and film are now routinely hailed as exemplars of their respective art forms: The novel ranks No. 10 in the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels, and the movie was in the first class of 25 works named to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films.” Many such anointed classics today seem ossified, their subjects and rhetorical approaches at a far remove from contemporary concerns. But the two iterations of “The Grapes of Wrath” continue to resonate profoundly. That’s particularly remarkable because both versions of “The Grapes of Wrath” appear so rooted in the sharply delineated here-and-now of Depression-era America: The works display a present-tense journalistic immediacy (this is happening!) and polemical urgency (this must change!).

But if the specifics of the hard times are now different, the economic inequities “The Grapes of Wrath” so artfully chronicles are no less relevant in 2014. The Americans forced from their homes during the subprime mortgage crisis and the Mexicans crossing the Sonoran Desert in desperate search of better prospects will sadly recognize themselves in the hardscrabble lives and luckless travels of the evicted Joads and their fellow Okies.

‘The Harvest Gypsies’

“The Grapes of Wrath” owes its ripped-from-the headlines quality to “The Harvest Gypsies,” a seven-part newspaper series by Steinbeck published in the San Francisco News in October 1936. An unapologetic work of advocacy journalism, Steinbeck not only vividly documents the deplorable conditions in which Midwestern migrants are forced to live while harvesting in California, he loudly decries the enforced squalor, penurious wages and jackbooted thuggery the wealthy growers used in concert with toadying local governments and police forces.

Steinbeck’s passionate identification with California’s agricultural workers reached its fullest flowering in “The Grapes of Wrath,” but his research into their deprivations also helped seed two other novels, “In Dubious Battle” (1936) and “Of Mice and Men” (1937); the three are sometimes referred to collectively as “The Dust Bowl Trilogy.” “The Grapes of Wrath” synthesizes the two previous novels, combining the political engagement of “In Dubious Battle” and the emotional connection of “Of Mice and Men” –to produce a superior work that deftly integrates head and heart.

Steinbeck, in fact, alternates chapters that provide the general socioeconomic context with those that relate the Joads’ struggles. The Joads and their journey serve as the highway that runs the length of the book, but the interstitial material allows Steinbeck to make stylistically varied side trips (essays, polemics, even short stories) on the revealing back roads that feed the interstate. Steinbeck’s approach has an experimental aspect, but the Joads’ concrete reality nicely balances the abstractions of the other chapters, and the book gains considerable strength by intertwining the two story strands.

The overarching message of “The Dustbowl Trilogy” is the necessity of collective action, of interdependence. In “The Grapes of Wrath,” as the family travels, son Tom Joad – introduced as a solitary figure walking toward home after a stretch in prison – makes his own journey to social awareness, to the recognition that progress can only be made in concert with others. Tom is particularly inspired by former preacher Casy, who eventually chooses to minister to people’s material rather than spiritual needs by becoming a labor organizer. When Casy is killed by a strike-breaking goon, Tom realizes that he must take up the dropped baton. As he prepares to separate from his family, Tom beautifully articulates his newfound knowledge to his mother:

"Lookie, Ma. I been all day an’ all night hidin’ alone. Guess who I been thinkin’ about! Casy! He talked a lot. Used ta bother me. But now I been thinkin’ about what he said, an’ I can remember – all of it. Says one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an’ he foun’ he didn’ have no soul that was his’n. Says he foun’ he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul. Says a wilderness ain’t no good, ’cause his little piece of a soul wasn’t no good ’less it was with the rest, an’ was whole. Funny how I remember. Didn’ think I was even listenin’. But I know now a fella ain’t no good alone."

John Ford’s influence

In adapting “The Grapes of Wrath,” screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and director John Ford necessarily discarded vast sections of the novel, but faithfully captured its vital essence. The film does dilute the potency of Steinbeck’s leftist politics – it’s especially skittish about the Communist Party’s role in organizing farm workers. And by rejiggering the order of the Joads’ journey, the movie ends on a slightly more optimistic note than the book, which grows ever bleaker as the family continues its downward spiral to disintegration. However, given the conservatism of Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck – a firm opponent of Hollywood trade unions – “The Grapes of Wrath” is a remarkably tough-minded work that never shies from honest despair.

Credit Wikipedia

Ford’s direction of “The Grapes of Wrath” also seems anomalous to some: He’s regarded as a poetic elegist for America’s past, not a fact-finding documenter of its present-day realities; and in his final few decades, he turned increasingly rightward in his political views. But Ford was never easily categorized – he both defended and deplored Hollywood communists during the blacklist – and he was even active in his industry’s early labor movement, helping found the Directors Guild.

Ardently proud of his Irish heritage, Ford also saw his ancestors’ Potato Famine experiences repeated in the Okies’ Dust Bowl travails. In both cases, ecological disasters – the first mercilessly exacerbated by England’s malign neglect, the second caused by human avarice and hubristically unsustainable agricultural practices – destroyed lives and livelihoods, and forced the mass migration of the afflicted. Ford thus identified the Okies’ broken-down jalopies crawling toward California as the contemporary equivalents of the diseased, ill-equipped coffin ships in which the Irish sailed to America.

Ford’s persistent interest in the virtues of family stability and mother love was undoubtedly another attraction of “The Grapes of Wrath.” The close relationship between Ma (Jane Darwell) and Tom (Henry Fonda) is considerably more central to film than book, and Ford’s shaping hand is likely at work there.

Pictorially, Ford’s influence is very much in evidence. Although the film is frequently praised for its documentary-like qualities, the lighting approach taken by Ford and cinematographer Gregg Toland (who shot “Citizen Kane” the following year) is far more expressionist than realist. Many scenes unfold in an enveloping darkness – evoking the claustrophobic oppressiveness of the dust storms – and even daytime sequences often feature severely slanting shadows that communicate menace and unease.

Ford does consciously reference the haunting, exquisitely painful images captured by such Farm Security Administration photographers as Dorothea Lange, Arthur Rothstein, and Walker Evans in a perfect (and uncharacteristic) traveling shot, seen from the Joads’ subjective viewpoint, as the family’s truck wends its slow way through a harrowingly grim migrant camp.

Praise and criticism

The film of “The Grapes of Wrath” immediately gathered gape-mouthed admirers, including a surprised Steinbeck, who had been skeptical of Hollywood’s ability to adapt the novel without fatal compromise. New York Times critic Frank S. Nugent was almost embarrassingly lavish in his praise:

“In the vast library where the celluloid literature of the screen is stored there is one small, uncrowded shelf devoted to the cinema’s masterworks, to those film which by dignity of theme and excellence of treatment seem to be of enduring artistry…. To that shelf of screen classics, Twentieth Century-Fox yesterday added its version of John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’”

Not everyone was quite so taken, of course. James Agee, an early giant of American film criticism, introduced his first column in the Nation with this deliberately charged remark: “I would talk to even so good a director as John Ford, for instance, with deep respect for him as a technician and as a serious man, but I might at the same time regret ninety-nine feet in every hundred of ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ and be able to specify my regret.”

Agee’s 99-percent-objectionable assessment seems unduly extreme, but the film certainly has its faults: There are a few too many moments when the actors tilt their heads skyward with stylized theatricality and speechify, and Ford can’t resist some characteristically overbroad comedy. Most egregiously, the studio-imposed ending is unadulterated hokum, with misty-eyed Ma giving Pa a pep talk chockfull of false uplift, promising that the poor will prevail because of their apparently superior fecundity:

“Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good an’ they die out. But we keep a’comin’. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ’cause we’re the people.”

The book’s conclusion is scarcely less cringe-inducing: As a storm of biblical scale rages outside a sheltering barn, Joad daughter Rose of Sharon, days after delivering a stillborn child, offers her life-saving breast to a starving man in a selfless gesture of human solidarity. Given the Production Code’s blue-nosed restrictions, such a provocative scenario was never a viable movie option, but it’s regrettable that Ford’s own preferred ending was vetoed as too open and unsatisfying.

Ford more appropriately finished with what is now the film’s penultimate sequence, an echo of its opening, with Fonda’s Tom Joad in silhouetted long shot, once more walking alone, reluctantly leaving Ma and family behind but moving toward a larger purpose and a wider community.

Searching for the ghost

Three-quarters of a century after Tom first materialized on the pages of Steinbeck’s book, bumming a ride on an Oklahoma highway, far too many of us – the dispossessed and discarded, the downwardly mobile – still look longingly to him for inspiration. Tellingly, director Steven Spielberg – our contemporary John Ford – last year announced plans to remake “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Our need never appears to abate: To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen’s 1995 musical tribute to Steinbeck’s hero, we still sit by the campfire light, forever searching for the ghost of Tom Joad.

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