Recently I re-saw "The Grapes of Wrath" on DVD. I was struck by a sense that this film was not just a great historic testament of the Great Depression with a strong director (John Ford) and accomplished and great actors (Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, et al ) but, uncomfortably, a movie made from times not as dissimilar to our own right now.
Yes, the clothes are different and the small American farm has gone away, but the economic desperation of the 1930's are upon places like Nevada, California, and Florida, places people used to go to find a better life when things went gunny-bags in the Rust Belt areas of the Middle West.
No question--bad times in many parts of America are here upon us again--chronic unemployment, foreclosures all over the country, banks who won't lend money, the investment giants of America hoarding what wealth there is instead of investing it, I could go on but you know this already.
Now many people, including a higher number of those with strong real-life skills, are out of work and willing to accept any job. (And this longest recession in decades incudes the more educated post-graduate groups that have never been so vulnerable.)
When I've previously seen "The Grapes of Wrath" and read it in high school, it was hard-hitting, but there was a comfort zone about it. I thought we were beyond this phase of desperation in American economics. And I am not a cockeyed optimist, as anybody who ever spent an hour talking to me could testify in court to and have no fear of perjuring themselves.
Yes, there were homeless families when I saw this in the 1980's , say, but it was not possible to say that millions would be two or three paychecks away from the same fate. Nor had union power ever eroded to the point of being a non-factor in saving jobs; nor was Wall Street capable of lobbying themselves so clean of regulations from the FDIC and the SEC and other regulatory components that a whole way of life could vanish for millions of middle-class families. Nor would anyone save a loony make a case that multi-millionaires were "small business" people and giving unemployment checks to job seekers was unConstitutional.
But here we are, at least in many parts of America.
I think "The Grapes of Wrath" is an important book and adapted movie that anyone who wants to understand America in the years before we entered World War II. That I can now almost recommend it as a parable to our own times makes it all the more urgent that one should acquaint themselves with John Steinbeck's fictional takes on matters he saw for himself and recorded for magazines along the dusty roads of Highway 66 in the American Southwest and California. His great prose can also be found in a volume called "The Harvest Gypsies", a non-fiction account from which the novel is drawn from.
This is a film that almost never got made. Not because of popularity concerns but because many conservative forces in Hollywood wanted to just buy the rights to the novel and put it on a shelf and forget about it. Major studios like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (under the reign of Louis B. Meyer, the highest paid executive in the USA) wanted to do just that. So hat's off to Darryl F. Zanuck for making this film and for John Steinbeck for telling a story that, all hyperbole aside, is as relevant now as it was seventy years ago.Warning--this review contains spoilers for those who haven't seen the film.