The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

6 08 2008

Pretty much Tobacco Road‘s much more serious and sometimes sappy cousin. This would explain it’s strengths (still a poetic yet gritty social drama) as well as it’s single fault. Considering that the film now has a big reputation as being a masterpiece of early classic Hollywood cinema, it is pretty inevitable that some scenes are a bit over the top. There’s a few too many monologues for one, of course the most famous one being Henry Fonda’s “I’ll be there” one towards the end is actually a lot less heavy-handed than the rest. While, overall, the film is a bit too structured in the conventional sense to be as mindblowingly brilliant as Tobacco Road, it does at least take the best aspects from that film and produces something more mature.

Tom Joad returns from his five year stay in a state penitentiary to find a completely different world. His family has relocated from the farm that they’ve called home for a long time now, and people, in general, seem to have changed. During his stay in prison, the stock market crash, thus leading to the Great Depression. Tom find his family, now at his uncle’s house, and joins them as they migrate to California looking for work. They receive many warnings of untrustworthy characters, but they ignore them and eventually, find out how unfair life is all by themselves.

Henry Fonda carries a pretty big load here, delivering the only particularly fantastic performance. Everyone else, though decent enough, doesn’t seem to comprehend the social ramifications of the film’s source text. Thus, many of the aforementioned monologues become simple “boo-hoo people are no longer honest” bits that go nowhere. Fortunately for the rest of the cast, the film isn’t all too dependent on performances, but instead on Ford’s perfectly moody technique.

When Tom first returns home, the atmosphere is greatly exaggerated, almost to the point that the farm feels a haunted house. But then, there’s something completely bizarre happens that grounds the heightened reality: John Carradine attempts to jump over a fence, but trips. A seemingly irrelevant moment that perfectly sets up the rest of the film. Ford and Fonda were both conscious of the story’s possible influence, so they both put their best efforts into not over-dramatizing things. In fact, nothing really happens in this movie, but that’s pretty much why it is so great. It is built upon the most visceral element of cinema – the cinematography. There’s no point in mentioning just how great Gregg Toland is with the camera, since Citizen Kane‘s technical achievements have already been discussed to death. His poetic visuals compliment the plotless (in a good way, of course) narrative for one of the most contemplative experiences in Hollywood history.



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