Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Grapes of Wrath

Year: 1940
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 23
Writer: Nunnally Johnson (screenplay), John Steinbeck (novel)
Director: John Ford
Star: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine

Oh, “The Grapes of Wrath,” in which things suck, everyone is depressed, and then it gets worse.

In fourth grade I was traumatized for weeks after reading “The Pearl,” especially the sequence where the innocent child is shot to death. In sophomore year of high school I was surprisingly unmoved by the ending to “Of Mice and Men.” Even though Oprah told me I should, I didn’t enjoy “East of Eden” no matter how much I tried to care. The novels of John Steinbeck are not exactly subtle—the books I’ve read use beautiful images and lots of depression to make blunt statements about “morals.” Yes, I know so many of them are “classics” and are “revered” and whatnot, but they just aren’t my kind of story. If the guy floats your boat, great, I’m happy for you.

There have been fantastic movies made from Steinbeck’s work—Elia Kazan’s “East of Eden” is a masterpiece and should have, for my money, been on the AFI Top 100. To me, writer Nunnally Johnson and director John Ford’s adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath” feels like being punched repeatedly in the face for two hours. Characters overcoming great odds is great, hey, movies would be out of business if we didn’t have it, but come on! A sledgehammer to the face can’t be as painful as what these characters go through!

But I get ahead of myself. The film opens with Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) returning home after a four-year stretch in prison. What did he do, you ask? While at a dance, another man stabbed him so Tom beat him to death with a shovel. How or why a shovel made its way onto a dance floor is left unclear. Anyway, he returns home to find his family has been evicted and have moved to a cousin’s home, a cousin who is also being evicted. With hope in the form of a flier asking for workers in California, they set out on Route 66 (which should have been re-named Route 666 after the toll it takes on this family). Then more horrible stuff happens to them.

Perhaps it’s just that the bad stuff is just so unrelenting. We don’t get to know who these men and women are outside of being screwed over again and again, so why should we care about them? Up until the final act of the film, the happiest moment in the entire movie comes when a diner clerk gives the children two candy canes for a penny instead of a nickel. Seriously.

Every other pseudo-happy moment is undercut with something horrible. Hey, we’re going on a road trip across the country and…oh…Grandpa is dead. They finally made it to California and…oh…Grandma just died too. We finally found a place to camp out for a week and get a little money and…oh…Tom was beaten, killed another guy and is now wanted by the police again. We finally (finally!) found a great place to live and work run by the Department of Agriculture and…oh…Tom has to run away. You just want to grab the filmmakers, shake them and scream “Let these people alone for five minutes!!!” Yes, I know three exclamation points is a bit much, but I was really feeling it there.

I’ve been on Route 66 and know it travels through some of the most amazing, beautiful parts of the USA. Why couldn’t we have a moment, just a moment, where the family just looks out of that weighed-down truck, smiles, and takes in the beauty around them? Or thanks God for the chance to see these sights so many others never see in their lifetimes? I’m not asking for a showy scene or a switch to Technicolor, but I would like a character-based moment of them enjoying something…anything about their life or journey.

Ford, who made some fantastic movies during his lifetime, shoots the movie in the most economical way possible, and it really suits the film’s tone and energy. The only time he gets a little flashy is when he shows us the P.O.V. of the front of the truck, and those shots are quite engaging and work in the context of the scenes they present.

No member of the family develops a personality…just issues the rest of the bunch has to deal with. Grandpa is going crazy. Grandma is getting more and more frail. Rose-of-Sharon’s husband walked out on her and she’s pregnant. Tom is wanted for murder. Any insight into who these people are in addition to their problems is sorely missed.

Look at Tom. I think Henry Fonda is a great actor, but who is Tom? What is he, other than angry? We first see him guilting a truck driver into a ride to his home. Is he grateful? No, he immediately yells at the driver and demeans him. We never see him grieve over the deaths of any of his family members, and he never seems very happy to see them. At the film’s climax, he tries walking out on his mother (Jane Darwell) without saying “goodbye.” Instead of being grateful for work, and knowing he’ll get the family thrown out of the peach farm if caught, he still decides to wander off and cause trouble on his first night there.

And don’t get me started on his final speech to his mother. Oh, well, I guess I already have. A character in that position, from that background, would never speak in the way Tom speaks. Look at the dialogue:

“I'll be all around in the dark - I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look - wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beating up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eating the stuff they raise and living in the houses they build - I'll be there, too.”

When did Tom Joad turn into Batman?

Even worse is Ma’s speech that closes the film. Darwell is probably the best thing about the film, and can show so much sadness and emotion with her eyes, but her speech here makes absolutely no sense in the context of what the family has been through. It’s just Steinbeck and Johnson speaking to America directly without bothering to remain true to the character they created.

My Score (out of 5): **

No comments: