The Grapes of Wrath

Released:  1940

Cast:  Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Shirley Mills, John Qualen, Eddie Quillan

Oscar Wins:  Best Supporting Actress (Jane Darwell), Best Director (John Ford)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Picture, Best Actor (Henry Fonda), Best Film Editing (Robert L. Simpson), Best Sound Recording (Edmund H. Hansen), Best Adapted Screenplay (Nunnally Johnson)

SUMMARY:  After being imprisoned for four years after killing a man in a bar fight, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) is paroled, and heads back to the family home in Oklahoma.  Close to home, he is joined by ex-preacher Jim Casey (John Carradine), who gave up preaching after “losing the spirit”.  Together, the two walk to the Joad farm, only to find it deserted.  They learn from a neighbor, Muley Graves (John Qualen), that all the area farmers (who were sharecroppers) were forced off the land by the landholder as a cascading result of the Dust Bowl (the farmers could not feed their families without a crop, nor pay their rent).  After hearing of plentiful work picking fruit in California, many families have headed West.  The Joad family is currently staying with Tom’s uncle John, but are planning on going to California as well.  Tom and Casey manage to find the family and reunite, before packing a truck and leaving the next morning.  The load includes 12 people:  Tom, his grandparents, parents, Uncle John, pregnant sister Rosasharn (a shortened version of Rose of Sharon) and her husband, three younger siblings, and Casey.  Just before leaving, Grandpa Joad announces that he is not going, so the family gets him drunk in order to get him into the truck.  Unfortunately, he has a stroke shortly into the trip on Highway 66; the family buries him with a note stating his name and the circumstances of his death.  Only a short time later, Grandma Joad also falls ill, and eventually dies in Ma Joad’s arms.  One evening, the family stops at a campground for the night, and discover some of the many other families that are heading to California.  One man there is actually returning from California, and he warns them that things are not what they expect:  the same handbill that the Joads have, that promises work, was widely distributed, and the work was quickly filled.  When more workers than expected appeared, the wages were lowered; the man telling the story says that he could not make enough money to feed his family, and lost two children to starvation.

When they finally get to California, they find that the man was right.  They take refuge in a transient camp, which clearly demonstrates the lack of work and nutrition available to migrants.  When a man arrives looking for workers, one of the camp inhabitants calls him out, exposing his scam and urging the others to steer clear.  This results in a scuffle with a police deputy, and when the paroled Tom gets involved, Casey urges him to hide out until dark.  Casey then takes responsibility for Tom’s actions, and is taken away by the police.  When Tom hears rumors that the camp is about to be raided, he persuades the Joad family to leave immediately — without Rosasharn’s husband, who has taken off.  They travel until they hear of work on a peach farm, but when they approach the farm, Keene Ranch, they find a large group of people, along with policemen, outside the entrance.  They are successfully hired, earning 5 cents for every bucket of fruit, but that evening find that the combined labor of six people (Ma and Rosasharn set up their cabin) is only enough to buy a meager amount of food at the company store.  Late that night Tom decides to investigate the earlier commotion, and manages to find Casey and a few other men living in a tent by the river.  These men have been leading a strike against Keene Ranch, as they say that the owners lower wages based on the abundance of labor until people cannot afford to feed their families.  As they talk, some camp guards arrive at the camp and attack; Casey is killed, and Tom kills the guard in an attempt to help Casey.  Tom is struck on the cheek, so even though the guards did not see his face, they know they will be able to recognize him.  He manages to stagger back to his family’s cabin, where Ma hides him from the searching guards.  The next night, under the cover of darkness, the Joad family leaves, telling the guards that they have a new job up north.  They stop at a government-run camp, called the Farmworkers’ Wheat Patch Camp, which to their surprise is clean, well-cared for, has indoor plumbing, and is run by the inhabitants; it also does not let police or deputies in without a warrant.  The family moves in and the men find work, making everything idyllic for a time.  However, other such camps have been attacked by locals for being “Red” (communist), and there is a rumor that the Wheat Patch Camp is next.  At a dance, agitators attempt to start a riot; waiting outside are police, who plan to charge in when the riot starts, since they won’t have to have a warrant.  Luckily, the camp inhabitants thwart the agitators and stop their attempts at a riot before the police can enter.  That night, deputies walk through the camp with the manager, taking down license plate numbers.  Tom realizes that his presence endangers his family, and he also wants to continue Casey’s drive for equality and fairness for workers.  After bidding goodbye to Ma, and his sleeping father, Tom leaves.  A short time later, the rest of the Joad family journeys to a farm where they have heard that there is twenty days worth of work.

MY TAKE:  For me, this is the iconic Henry Fonda film, the one that I picture when I hear his name.  He’s terrific as Tom Joad, a man with a temper and a checkered past, but who cares deeply for his family and their well-being.  Even so, Jane Darwell nearly steals the show from him as Ma Joad, who is the true glue of the family.  She might not be doing the physical labor, but there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that the Joad family would fall apart without her.  She is the head of the family, not Pa Joad.  What I found interesting about this movie is that it’s definitely set in a different time period:  everybody is desperate for work so that they can eat — nobody gets welfare or any type of government help.  For me, this is both a good and a bad thing.  When you see all those starving people, who are willing to do any job to earn money, no matter how demeaning, you understand the purpose of welfare.  The amazement of the Joad family upon arriving at Wheat Patch demonstrates how unusual they find it to get something for nothing.  However, I have personally seen a lot of people who abuse the welfare system, purposely not getting a job because they would get less money that way.  If these people had a little bit of the drive and morals of the Joads and their fellow “Okies”, the world would probably be better off.  There are people who truly need help, like the people in this movie needed help, but there are also people who could use more of a personal drive.  It’s sad to see people who are so desperate to work, but can’t find any job to do.

RATING:  Good but sad.

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