Blu Grapes

Clarksville and Ozark and Van Buren and Fort Smith on 64, and there’s an end of Arkansas. And all the roads into Oklahoma City, 66 down from Tulsa, 270 up from McAlester. 81 from Wichita Falls south, from Enid north. Edmond, McLoud, Purcell. 66 out of Oklahoma City; El Reno and Clinton, going west on 66. Hydro, Elk City and Texola; and there’s an end to Oklahoma. 66 across the panhandle of Texas. Shamrock and McLean, Conway and Amarillo, the yellow. Wildorado and Vega and Boise, and there’s an end of Texas. Tucumcari and Santa Rosa and into the New Mexico mountains to Albuquerque, where the road comes down from Santa Fe. Then down the gorged Rio Grande to Los Lunas and west again on 66 to Gallup, and there’s the border of New Mexico.

And now the high mountains. Holbrook and Winslow and Flagstaff in the high mountains of Arizona. Then the great plateau rolling like a ground swell. Ashfork and Kingman and stone mountains again, where water must be hauled and sold. Then out of the broken sun-rotted mountains of Arizona to the Colorado, with green reeds on its banks, and that’s the end of Arizona. There’s California just over the river, and a pretty town to start it. Needles, on the river. But the river is a stranger in this place. Up from Needles and over a burned range, and there’s the desert. And 66 goes on over the terrible desert, where the distance shimmers and the black center mountains hang unbearably in the distance. At last there’s Barstow, and more desert until at last the mountains rise up again, the good mountains, and 66 winds through them. Then suddenly a pass, and below the beautiful valley, below orchards and vineyards and little houses, and in the distance a city. And, oh, my God, it’s over.

– John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

In addition to the obvious musical delight that Steinbeck takes in the sound of the place names listed in the quote above, the fact that he names so damn many of them serves another purpose, which is to give the reader a sense of how epic the journey is that the characters in the novel have undertaken. The names of those places trace the journey of the Joad family from Oklahoma to the supposed promise land (thank God, at last) of California. The sheer number of those place names and the fact that they’re all connected by Highway 66 gives the reader a sense of what life was like on the road in the 1930s (twenty years before Jack Kerouac). It is pure Americana, pure Steinbeck and, when that prose is translated into images, it is also pure John Ford.

The Grapes of Wrath was published in the spring of 1939. Shortly thereafter, Daryl Zanuck, Vice President in Charge of Production at Twentieth Century Fox, bought the rights and, incredibly, production of the film wrapped in November of that same year, about six months after the novel was published. (Needless to say, things got done a little quicker in Hollywood back in those days.) It was a courageous decision for Zanuck to produce Grapes; the novel was instantly controversial upon publication. It was banned and burned in various places around the United States and this controversy carried over to the film’s production: the California Chamber of Commerce and the Agricultural Council of California called for a boycott of all Fox films upon hearing that Zanuck was making an adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel. When Zanuck sent a second unit director on the road to shoot semi-documentary footage of the Joad’s jalopy out on the highway, they used a dummy title, Highway 66, so that no one would know what they were really shooting.

Another potential obstacle for Zanuck was Chase National Bank, which was the primary stockholder of Twentieth Century Fox. This is because The Grapes of Wrath took an explicitly pro-labor, anti-capital stance. If there are villains in The Grapes of Wrath, they are the banking interests who are responsible for kicking the farmers off their land, which is what sets the plot in motion. That these bankers are faceless and unseen is part of the point Steinbeck (and, in the movie version, John Ford) are trying to make about capital. There’s a powerful scene early in the film where a poor farmer, Muley Graves (John Qualen), confronts a bank representative who tells him that his farm will be reposessed. The bank employee points out that he’s just doing what he’s been ordered to do and that he’s being paid by someone hundreds of miles away. “Then who do we shoot?,” Muley asks in frustration.

Many of the top brass at Twentieth Century Fox didn’t think these sort of sentiments were going to fly with Winthrop Aldrich, the President of Chase National. Shortly after purchasing the rights to the book, Zanuck had a meeting with Aldrich about an unrelated matter and, out of the blue, Aldrich said, “I hear you’ve bought the rights to The Grapes of Wrath. My wife just finished reading it and she’s crazy about it. I can’t wait to see what kind of movie it’s going to be.” But Zanuck was feeling pressure from all sides; it wasn’t until after Steinbeck had sold the movie rights that he found out about the studio’s ties to Chase National. The novelist then set up a meeting with the mogul and told him, “If I had known your studio was controlled by a large bank, I would’ve never sold you the rights.” Steinbeck also said he was afraid that Zanuck was going to remove the “social significance” from the story. Zanuck assured Steinbeck that would not be the case and that we was willing to take any “legitimate or justified gamble” with the material. After Steinbeck saw the finished film at a private screening in December of 1939, he wrote his agent, “Zanuck has more than kept his word. He has a hard, straight picture in which the actors are submerged so completely that it looks and feels like a documentary film and certainly it has a hard, truthful ring. No punches are pulled. In fact, with descriptive matter removed, it is a harsher thing than the book by far. It seems unbelievable but it is true.”

When it came time for Zanuck to assign a director to the film, John Ford was the most logical choice. Ford was a proven critical and commercial force in Hollywood at that time, having recently won an Oscar for Best Director for The Informer and having directed a series of hits for Fox, including the terrific Shirley Temple vehicle Wee Willie Winkie. More importantly, Zanuck knew Ford had an affinity for the material. Zanuck himself was a conservative Republican, which makes his decision to produce the movie all the more remarkable. Zanuck, however, was also smart and fair and he didn’t have a problem producing films that espoused beliefs that were opposed to his own. Zanuck actually hired a detective agency to investigate the labor camps in California like the ones portrayed in the book to see if the conditions were as bad as what Steinbeck had claimed. The agency reported back to Zanuck that the conditions were actually worse than what was in the novel. Zanuck then gave Ford free reign to make the film as brutally realistic as he could.

At this stage of his career, Ford’s politics were unambiguously liberal. (After the war they would become a complicated mixture of liberal and conservative but in 1937 Ford had described himself as “a definite Socialist Democrat, always left.”) Ford supported liberal causes throughout the 1930s, such as the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, and had sent money to anti-Franco forces during the Spanish Civil War and to charities that supported displaced migrant farmers like the Joads. He was also one of the founding members of the Screen Director’s Guild, a union that was initially extremely unpopular with studio executives. Zanuck was willing to overlook his disagreements with Ford because he knew that Ford was the best person for the job. For his part, Ford was excited to receive the assignment. He later said that he “bucked to do it” and that he put everything he had into it. How seriously Ford took the project can be ascertained by his approach to the visual style; Ford hired the best cinematographer in Hollywood, Gregg Toland, to shoot the film. What Steinbeck referred to as the “documentary” feel of the movie was a conscious strategy employed by Ford and Toland. This semi-documentary style is a perfect visual correlative for Steinbeck’s semi-journalistic prose (the novel had its origins in a series of newspaper articles that the author had written about labor camps in the mid-1930s). In particular, Ford and Toland intended to reproduce the style of Depression-era photographers like Dorothea Lange and government-produced documentary films like The Plow That Broke the Plains.

This documentary influence is most notable in the sequence where the Joads first arrive at the first labor camp in California. In one of the greatest shots that Ford ever composed (which is saying a lot), he shows a harrowing scene from the Joads’ point-of-view as their jalopy enters the camp. In the background of the frame, one can see the primitive shacks where the workers are living in total squalor while, in the foreground, the workers slowly drift across the frame, staring directly into the camera with almost accusatory looks on their hard, unforgettable faces. It is one of the most haunting, powerful and mysterious shots of any Hollywood movie of the era. I’m happy to report that these are qualities that come thrillingly alive like never before on Fox’s new Blu-ray of the film, the best it has ever looked on home video. This is not merely a straightforward high-definition rendering of existing source materials (like Warner Brothers’ Blu-ray of Fort Apache from earlier this year) but a high-definition transfer of a full-on digital remastering of the movie. The Grapes of Wrath is a very dark film and this transfer boasts the impressive richness of film-like black levels while also showing an incredible level of detail: every wrinkle on every characters’ face seems visible, which really brings out the film’s documentary side.

In addition to the visual style, the other most noteworthy aspect of The Grapes of Wrath is Henry Fonda’s lead performance as Tom Joad, the role that the actor was born to play. Fonda’s persona was one that embodied honesty, fairness and liberal idealism, qualities that made him one of the biggest stars of the New Deal era (and qualities that Sergio Leone intentionally and cleverly subverted by casting Fonda as a sadistic and pro-capital villain in Once Upon a Time in the West nearly thirty years later). The scenes where Tom Joad serenades his Ma to the tune of “Red River Valley” and, later, gives the famous “I’ll be there” monologue are unforgettable mainly because of what Fonda brings to the table. Not only is it impossible for me to imagine anyone else playing this role, I am incapable of reading the novel without hearing in my mind the flat, midwestern accent and distinctive cadences of Fonda’s speech in every one of Tom Joad’s lines. Speaking of which, that accent comes through loud and clear in Fox’s DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack. While most mono soundtracks from Hollywood’s golden age sound understandably limited on a surround sound set-up, the audio on this Blu-ray might be superior to any other transfers I’ve ever heard of movies from this era. This is perhaps because the original mono soundtrack itself is brilliant, offering surprising depth and complexity in the mix of the distinctive speaking voices of Ford’s stock company (Jane Darwell, Charley Grapewin, John Carradine, et al), sound effects like wind rustling through leaves and birds tweeting, and, of course, the mournful, indelible strains of Danny Borzage’s accordion.

The bottom line: The Grapes of Wrath is an American masterpiece and one of the best films John Ford made before his post-war mature period. The Fox Blu-ray, which exceeded my expectations, is worthy of the movie and will certainly figure prominently in my end-of-the-year “Best Home Video Releases” list.

Works Cited

1. McBride, Joseph. Searching for John Ford: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s, 2001. Print.


About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

33 responses to “Blu Grapes

  • jilliemae

    I loved when you showed me this movie, and I can’t even imagine it being any better!

  • Omar Pineda

    Great Ford

  • Zach D.

    Excellent review! This is definitely going on my wish list. Thanks, Mike!

  • Bherz

    Really interesting. I saw this several years ago and have got to watch it again. I think the last scene in the book is so fitting. Crazy how much the politics were at play in making the movie.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Yeah, it’s interesting that in spite of the fact that the movie has a tacked-on “happy ending” and in spite of the fact that aspects of the novel were softened in its translation to the screen, Steinbeck still felt that the movie was a harsher thing “by far.” I like the book but this is one instance where I actually prefer the movie.

  • david

    I need to buy this one! Is this the only Ford that available in Blu? I also have another question,what if Ford has never done any Westerns? Will it affect his high prestige? I know all his Oscars are non-Westerns.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Are you kidding me? Here’s a complete list of Ford Blu-rays:

      Stagecoach (Criterion – also includes a silent Ford feature, Bucking Broadway, in 1080i)

      Drums Along the Mohawk

      The Grapes of Wrath

      Fort Apache

      The Searchers

      The Horse Soldiers

      How the West Was Won

      And The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is dropping soon.

      Your second question is kind of tricky. To a certain extent the western is a disreputable genre so his reputation would probably be higher in the eyes of some critics had he not made any westerns. But a lot of Ford’s best films are westerns including The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Wagon Master, etc. I wouldn’t want to be without any of them!

  • Adam

    Can’t wait to see this on Blu-Ray, if it’s anywhere near the revelation of The Searchers on Blu then it’ll be very much worth it.

    Question, kinda: We were discussing Dodes’ka-den the other day and started discussing director’s first color films and the best examples of such. A search of the interwebs turns up no “Best First Color Films” list, and since you appear to love lists as much as I do, I thought I would ask about your favorite examples. Anyhow, keep up the great work!

    • michaelgloversmith

      Adam, GREAT question. Off the top of my head, here are my top ten favorite “first color films.” Keep in mind that this isn’t a list of the best first color films that happened to be shot in color, but rather a list of the best first films in color that I think use color the best (if that makes sense):

      10. Heaven Can Wait (Lubitsch)
      9. Muriel (Resnais)
      8. Equinox Flower (Ozu)
      7. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell/Pressburger)
      6. Une Femme Douce (Bresson)
      5. Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli)
      4. The River (Renoir)
      3. Lola Montes (Ophuls)
      2. Senso (Visconti)
      1. Red Desert (Antonioni)

      Feel free to add your own suggestions.

      • Adam Wilson

        Thanks for the quick reply and thoughtful answers. Red Desert was one of the ones I had mentioned as we purchased the great Criterion BR when it came out. I was just surprised to see so little info out there when I searched for it.

        I would have to throw in (and correct me if I’m wrong about whether any of these are actually their first color films) Black Orpheus, Juliet of the Spirits, Le Samourai…I’m sure there are others to forget but you’ve already taken a bunch of great ones. I’m going to have to put together a movie night around this theme. Thanks for the input!

      • michaelgloversmith

        Oh shit, I can’t believe I forgot Le Samourai. That is one brilliant monochromatic color scheme. It would have made my list for sure had I remembered it. I’d also give an honorable mention to Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk.

        On the other hand, there are a surprising number of indifferent to lightly likable first color films: Hitchcock’s Rope, Godard’s A Woman is a Woman, Hawks’ A Song is Born – all dress rehearsals for the greatness that was to come . . .

  • Top 10 Home Video Releases of 2012 « White City Cinema

    […] 24. The Grapes of Wrath (Ford, Fox Blu-ray) Full review here. […]

  • Mark Edquiban

    Hi, Mr. Smith,
    I liked when you said that Steinbeck naming all the cities that go through Highway 66 gives an idea of how life was back in the 1930’s, which was true because it gives people an idea of how easy it is to travel across the “whole” country even without having a car. Although, it would take days or months and maybe a couple of years to do, it still gives people an easy route without taking different highways and expressways nowadays. I also liked when you said that Henry Fonda was made to do this film because whenever I think about this, all I could think about is him playing as Tom Joad. Even though, I wasn’t fond of black&white movies, this was an exception because of what Fonda and the cast brought to the table. Especially, when Tom was giving his goodbye speech to the mom, he kinda disappeared as Henry Fonda and channelled Tom Joad in the scene (and throughout the movie). During the movie, I tried looking for the haunting scene you were talking about where they looked into the camera and I thought you were talking about the ending when the ma and the pa were talking but I guess not and I missed what you were saying. I felt like by the last act of the movie, people just disappeared like one of the guys (not the sister’s husband).

  • Adriana Lorusso

    I agree that The Grapes Of Wrath gives the readers a sense of what life was like on the road in the 1930’s. The best shot of the entire film is when they arrive at the first labor camp in California. I don’t think anyone else could pull of as playing Tom Joad. Henry Fonda did such an amazing job in this film. At the end when he was saying his goodbyes to his ma I wanted him to find his way back, but I knew that wasn’t going to happen. John Ford is a kick ass director.

  • Tamara Fleysh

    The movie “The Grapes of Wrath” directed by John Ford is very emotional movie which depicts sharecroppers from Oklahoma during the Great Depression, who were forced to move to California to avoid facing homelessness and starvation. Jane Darwell, who stars as the mom of Tom Joad, is amazing. I think the Mom was the strongest character in the film. She was the person who held the whole family together, in spite of her husband who lost hope after losing to the family’s home and land to the bank, her pregnant daughter whose husband disappeared after difficulties on the road to California, and her son, Tom Joad, who was a good man but put himself in bad situations. There is also a scene where the Mom tries to feed her family as well as the hungry children in a labor camp with the litter amount of food she has left. Another very emotional scene is where the Mom withheld the fact that the grandmother died until the family crossed the California border, so the rest of them could survive. Through thick and thin, the death of their grandparents, and Tom’s forced departure the Mom still kept the family going strong because “they are the people that live.”

  • Jeremiah

    The movie “Grapes of Wrath is a very touching movie. The very first introduction is tom joad getting out of jail trying to make it home; to find out him and his whole community no longer has a home. They’re all getting moved out, tom finally reconnects with his family and they are all ready to move to California which by the way they all thinks he broke out of jail. when times get hard family sticks together. Ma tried her best to keep the family together but she still came up short losing three people including her son again. Grandpa passed away as soon at they left he was just tired. Grandma passed away before they reached the boarder to California, but she still made it to California and that’s where they placed her to rest. Lastly as far as for Tom he really is not a bad person but when face with a problem he never shy from it. After finally getting into a good camp tom is forced to leave because of an fight with the police at the last one. Dispite all of this Tom finds his true calling which i find is amazing in stead of just being a ex con/drifter they put more purpose to his character.
    Jeremiah C

  • Sebastian Tchorzewski

    I really enjoyed the movie and how it was despalying the truth and how people used to live when the great depresion hit. This movie is a great example of the director trying to show people the truth and how the world really works. I also like how in your review you mentioned that this movie had production problems and that the producer didn’t know if the movie will ever see daylight, but ultimetly it was show in theaters and this movie came out to be really good. Now a days if a movie has production problems it is missing something and usually turns out to bad, but in this case it was a fantastic film that you can watch with your family and see how people really lived during the great depression. My most favorite scene and line in the entire movie is when Casey tells Tom that as long as they rebel under the gates the owners will pay .50 per bucket and that as soon as they leave the owner will pay .25. I don’t know but I love this kind of idea and it stands out to me and make me wonder was that really the case or if the director simply came out with the idea ? Finally I also like how the sole author of the book says that “it is a harsher thing than the book by far. It seems unbelievable but it is true.” and that is saying something about the Great director John Ford and about the author of the book John Steinbeck.

  • Aldreech Barrios

    It is really sad how every family went through back on those days. The Joad moved to California because of the uncertain job that they heard. Naming all the places that passed by was a great idea because it indicates how long they traveled and the struggles they had. Tom lost his grandfather and later his grandmother as well. When they arrived in California, they encounter more problems. They didn’t get pay that much and Tom had leave his family again.

  • Tyler Kiczula

    Mr. Smith, fortunately Chase national bank didn’t hold this film from being released and nor did it water down the pro labor stance that this film takes. This film is does an excellent job showing just how far people were willing to go for work. They lost their homes, sometimes their family members a long they way. You could easily argue they lost their humanity. The Joads saved every penny they had for their journey from Oklahoma to California, and they were barely able to make it. They endured hardship on their way to California as they struggled to manage their money and the death of Their grandparents. When they arrived in California, they were treated poorly by Californians. The “I’ll be there” monologue will remain timeless and to me was the the most influential and politically undertoned scene in the film.

  • Amar Silic

    Mr. Smith,

    As you mentioned in your blog post, The Grapes of Wrath (Ford, 1940) is a film that was based on John Steinbeck’s successful novel. Though I am not a huge reader, I can appreciate the impact Steinbeck’s book gave to American literature. But also, the movie was not only a good visual depiction of the book, but it was filmed and released in about a year of the publication date. Something that will likely never be seen again in today’s day and age. Additionally, the lead actor, Henry Fonda who play Tom Joad, was also in 12 Angry Men (Lumet, 1957), one of my personal favorite films. Therefore, it made like this film even more. I thoroughly enjoyed your discussion of the highway on Route 66 and how difficult life was for families during The Great Depression. Especially to those whom were already impoverished. Nothing defines 1930s American culture better than heading west to find work and doing so on the Main Street of America. In the grand scheme of things, despite the fact that there were no exhilarating car chases or captivating plot twists, this film still had me on the edge of my seat for its sheer storytelling.

  • George Price

    I liked hearing all the city’s that the Joads stopped through on there journey to California. I think one of the most important parts of the movie is there trip. I really got a good fell of what it was like in that situation back in those times. seeing the truck loaded to the max and the whole family barley fitting in the truck. The family lost two loved ones, and meet many people in a similar situation, it was very i nearly welled up when the lady at the dinner gave the kids the ten cent candy for a penny. i love seeing people reach out to help the less fortunate. While i do understand that the banks have do what they gotta do to stay afloat, you can really tell what the author of the book felt strongly about. The banks are the clear enemy in the book and i was very intrigued when i found out that Steinbeck was unaware of 20th century’s affiliation with the big bank known as Chase. I can imagine how the felt when he wrote a book about the inconsiderate nature of a bank, and then sold it to a bank to portray it how they felt. luckily for Steinbeck, Zanuck is a good man and kept his word by keeping the main message of the story alive. I have a lot of admiration for Zanuck. This was a great movie, and sent a strong message i will forever appreciate the struggles that farmers went through to supply the human race with necessities for sustaining life. With out farmers we have no food, and i feel they are wrongfully mistreated.

    -George Price

  • Derek Colon

    The Grapes of Wrath really does give you a good idea of what life was like on the road in the 1930’s. It was a long journey on the road for the Joad family. Because I intend to go on a road trip out west next summer, the slow journey to California spoke to me. I can definitely see how this movie was so controversial back in the day, or even now for that matter. The scene where they enter the first labor camp made me cringe. It felt like the extras on the screen were staring angrily into my soul saying “go away and never return”. It was indeed a powerful scene that, without words, described how life was in the “promise land”. I enjoyed the film and plan to see it again eventually (maybe get some ideas for the road trip later)

  • Devin Castanon

    This movie had a lot of interesting points to it. i definitely agree with the point you made about some of the movie seeming like it was a documentary. There was a lot of very real aspects to it which made it extremely interesting. I think each of the actors definitely brought an important part to the movie and it wouldn’t have been as good if those actors weren’t part of it. The novel itself was very groundbreaking so this movie definitely had people interested. John Ford did an amazing job directing this movie and making it the best it could be. It was definitely an enjoyable and interesting movie to watch.

  • nickweimer

    It’s fairly amazing that this movie exists as it does, considering the timeline, the controversy, and the general difficulty surrounding its production. And the final product is so very good. Beautifully shot. Peppered with a regular drip of fantastic landscapes, and skyscapes! Holy crap, the skyscapes! Lots of great skies. It really gives you a sense of the scale of their journey, and a sense of the places they’re passing through, accomplishing something somewhat similar to the quote of Steinbeck’s playing with the placenames.

  • Matthew Teichert

    I absolutely loved this film due to the amazing cinematography and the real story like story telling. I agree with your statement with this movie being like a documentary, but I would have to say this movie plays more like a person telling a story due to many of the aspects of a documentary not being there in this film. this movie is more of the recollection of ones life through his eyes and how his experiences changed his feelings. I loved the shots when the family was driving through the country to get to their destination, the grand and desolate landscapes really showed that they felt like they were alone at making a new life at the beginning of their journey. I will definitely be seeing this movie again to take a better look at it to see if I missed anything.

  • Mark Filipiuk

    I Find the story of the Joad’s just as compelling as the story of the films producers. The hardships that they were faced just show how controversial of a topic the novel and therefore the movie touched on. I’m glad that the Fox was able to produce this film in the face of adversity, because it really shows what hardships sharecroppers faced in that era. They were forced out of their old lives and faced an uncertain and brutal future. It really astonishes me that people could be so cruel and inhumane not so long ago. This Movie helps show people today just how bad things were for farmers and lets us appreciate the hard work they put in.

  • Marisa S. Cygan

    Watching the grapes of wrath really gives a very good example on what life was like during the Great Depression, especially people who lived in the rural United Sates and moved to California. They thought there would be such promising jobs for them in California, but when they got there they leaned the truth. With how well it was filmed, but you could tell when they used a set and when they did not. But it really looks like it is a documentary. This film had so many powerful shots of the families and the shot of them going into the first camp really is the best shot and gives the most emotion. Seeing the families faces and how emotionless they were really shows the environment they are currently going into. The Joad family is expecting it to be all peaches and cream, but it really isn’t happy at all.

  • Lenin Philip

    I found the Controversy beside the film interesting. On how so many people wanted to stop this movie from being made, and all the loops John Ford had to go through. With all that he did create a very compelling movie. I loved how it showed how ruff it was to travel across the U.S. in that time while it simultaneously displayed how simple and easy it could be. The scene thats stuck into my head is then Tom is leave and saying his final good by to his mother. ending in her amazing dialogue at the end.

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