2020 Social documentary from 1940: Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath

Given an amateur student project, John Ford would have made it into an Academy-award winning feature. I was familiar with Ford’s work, but to me he was always the western guy. When I first watched The Grapes of Wrath (1940), I realized what an incredible director he was. Anyone can realize they’re watching a Ford film when they’re two minutes in.

Ford's use of wide spanning shots is reminiscent to his western work.
Ford’s use of wide spanning shots is reminiscent to his western work.

Based on Steinbeck‘s 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the film tells the story of a poor family in the middle of the Great Depression, traveling to California in search of work Of course, here’s Henry Fonda, playing Tom Joad, who has just been released from prison and is on parole. The farmers are forced out of their farms by the deed holders, so his family packs everything they own into a 1926 Hudson sedan and venture off to California to find work. The film was allegedly banned in the Soviet Union because it showed that even the poorest families can own a car. Along the way, we don’t see a movie or a reflection of a novel, we see a strong social documentary. Migrants are all around the place, camps are overcrowded with desperate and starving people, and man is a wolf to another man. Some things never change, I guess. Hungry children come to Ma, and she shares some stew with them. But there’s more of them. And there’s her family to feed.

Al Joad: Ain’t you gonna look back, Ma? Give the ol’ place a last look?
Ma Joad: We’re going’ to California, ain’t we? All right then let’s go to California.
Al Joad: That don’t sound like you, Ma. You never was like that before.
Ma Joad: I never had my house pushed over before. Never had my family stuck out on the road. Never had to lose everything I had in life.

Steinbeck himself believed that Fonda did a great job portraying Tom Joad, so the two stayed close friends and Fonda even read an eulogy on Steinbeck’s funeral. In a series of unsuccessful quests for work, the family realizes that California is not a promised land, after leaving everything they had to reach it. Tom, seeing a clean camp run by the Department of Agriculture, which has the luxury of toilets and showers, decides to be the change he wants to see in the world. The overall bleakness is characterized by the expressionist look and feel of the film, where Ford could play with lighting and contrast to emphasize the gloomy atmosphere. Lights and shadows are here to guide us to see how are characters feel, instead of plainly showing their emotions on the screen. The wonderful cinematography was done by Gregg Toland, famous for his work in Citizen Kane (1941).

Expressionist lighting portrays the bleakness the social stratification of the time.
Expressionist lighting portrays the bleakness the social stratification of the time.

Lights and shadows are sometimes enough to portray not only grim situations but also social issues that are happening outside the government spotlight.
Lights and shadows are sometimes enough to portray not only grim situations but also social issues that are happening outside the government spotlight.

Ford’s western movies are the best examples of natural sceneries and beautiful juxtapositions of landscapes and people, along with musical scores that are often folk-tune variations, enveloping the notion of a community. His heroes are often outsiders, but he does value the force of a group. Visual imagery connects the family as a unit. Ford often uses natural elements to illustrate the emotions of the characters. Desert storms destroying the family’s home. Immense heat making their jobs difficult. Rainfalls. But he also pictures some ceremonial rituals and habits that are part of the human spirit. Objects are often tools for nostalgic moments, or they’re here to connect or estrange people. Ma looks through memorabilia before embarking on a journey and she throws the trinklets into the fire, symbolizing a new beginning. Grandpa dies during the journey, and they give him a funeral. The sacrifices of the dead are here to guide the living ones. They leave a note so that if his remains are discovered, the people would not think it was homicide. Even in such cases when people are falling apart, they still need to think about the societal norms.

Ford often uses objects, especially mirrors, to create astonishing scenes contrasting people and emotions.
Ford often uses objects, especially mirrors, to create astonishing scenes contrasting people and emotions.

Objects are often used to express the character's past and put the emotions into focus
Objects are often used to express the character’s past and put the emotions into focus.

Casy: I wouldn’t pray just for a old man that’s dead, ’cause he’s all right. If I was to pray, I’d pray for folks that’s alive and don’t know which way to turn.

Ford uses static and long shots, and he’s known for his limited use of close-ups. The camera is almost stationary, compared to the great Ozu. People are here to do simple things, the emotions are expressed through their acts and we don’t need close-ups to be reminded of that. Ford preferred spontaneity, but he was also extremely tough on his actors. Henry Brandon referred to Ford as the only man who could make John Wayne cry. However, giving little explicit direction sometimes produced the best improvised results. For the final scene of the film, Ford led Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell, who received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for this feature, through the scene and waited for the to be immersed in the moment, and then the scene was done in a single take. And because of Ford, this film looks like it was done in a single take as well. All the emotions are perfectly conveyed in the bleakest of moment where there’s nothing to lose because they don’t have anything left. We see the story of immigrants losing everything and yet standing tall, trying to survive mentally and physically in a world that wants to crush the human spirit down. This film was made in 1940, but it might become a social documentary of 2040 as well.

Ma Joad: 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.

__________________________________

References

Gallagher, Tag (1986). John Ford: The Man and His Films. University of California Press.

Hasumi, Shigehiko (2004). John Ford, or The Eloquence of Gesture. Rogue.

Landau, John (1973). John Ford: An American Director. RollingStone.

Sobchack, Vivian C. (1979). The Grapes of Wrath (1940): Thematic Emphasis Through Visual Style. American Quarterly 31 (5): 596–615.

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