From John Steinbeck’s great novel, The Grapes of Wrath is the American classic portrait of The Great Depression. We follow the Joad family as they’re pushed out of their Oklahoma home and journey to California for a better future. Out there, mythic jobs are promised where they’ll be picking peaches and have enough money to eat well. The whole family climbs into an overloaded jalopy, looking like a tragic Beverly Hillbillies, but the journey is long and hard on all three generations. They’re pushed around, paid poorly and soon, the family starts to break apart.
At the core of the family unit is Tom (Henry Fonda, nominated for Best Actor), who’s just been released from prison and is lucky to have such a happy reunion with his family. Finding them in such dismal times is hard on him, but he quickly realizes he must help lead them. His mother, (Jane Darwell and Best Actress winner) is a resourceful second in command. She’s a moving, sympathetic character as she tries to take care of hungry children, both young and grown, as well as the frail grandparents.
No one is spared the hardships of The Great Depression. Children go hungry and stand around wherever anyone is making food like begging dogs. Their parents never make enough and have to keep moving like gypsies. Pregnant women can’t find enough milk and the few men who brave enough to fight for justice, are cut down in their prime.
Usually, when people see an image from this film, they can immediately recognize it, not because of recognizable actors or scenes, but the unique lighting. John Ford’s technique here had been talked about for generations. He illuminates his characters in the dark, showing a wonderful, telling profile. It feels like moonlight at some points. The technique makes the dark scenes much more active and hides a lot less from the viewer.
This is the Great American Novel turned into the Great American Film. Some will find it depressing, long and boring. If you can’t handle being transported back to where your grandpa was a kid, in the dust with no iPhone, and need something light hearted but still looking for a bleak time, Up in the Air is a decent testimony to today’s economic downturn, but not nearly as intense or down hearted as Wrath. I’m not putting down Up in the Air; it deserves a lot of praise, but merely suggesting it as a stepping stone before you can successfully wrestle The Grapes of Wrath.
If you’re of mature and sound mind up for a serious classic that shouldn’t be overlooked, pick up The Grapes of Wrath. It’s likely you will find it a moving work of genius that brings faces and characters to the hardships we’ve only heard about and couldn’t imagine.
“Them Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain’t human. Human being wouldn’t live the way they do. Human being couldn’t stand to be so miserable.”