Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)--An "Old" Movie With New Relevance

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. 


  1. This was how the film was advertised in 1940:

  2. Certainly is a rethink on where we are now. We are within a new era yet at the same time we don't wish to have a sequel. It's very ironic in the manner that this film does really illustrate a repeat within a new era of what can still happen within the era in which we live. There are no easy solutions with this Doug. But at the same time I do believe that within this era there it shall take a few years to bring about a good economic foundation. We have been so used to having the good times that we have not really taken into account of where we really sit economically. But once again there shall be a recovery, not to each and every ones likings but one it's really a situation where we have realized where we have been economically and that that it shall be some time for all this to happen. This is one movie after watching this that I would think that most all would gain an appreciation for it. With no doubts at all.

  3. True; this is as relevant today as it was then....

  4. I sincerely hope you are right, Jack, and that the people most affected will have the resources to hold out for this New Foundation in America and elsewhere.

    As the reviewer stated, we have been here before in some ways, and we should know the warning signs of people who promise a quick fix.

  5. It really surprised me Will, to see how much the last few years has eroded hard-won gains for so many people, and how many people thought America could cheat the cycles of boom and bust in the new investment-driven economy. Maybe more people will wise up that American Exceptionism has its limits.

  6. Doug, this is an excellent blog. Truly. I'd just like to add that we should have known all during Reagan's "Trickle down" theory, & the eight years of GWB & done something about it.

    "We" waited too long. When/if recovery is accomplished, how many will have suffered? Will they ever recover?

    I'm disabled, on a very small monthly Trust account. I make 'too much' to qualify for anything. The lender of my mortgage has threatened to foreclose if I don't pay past due property taxes, & the Homeowner's put a lien on my property for past HOA dues. To catch up would cost $818.00 a month, over half of my Trust.

    Can I hold out for "recovery?" Jack is very optimistic. I'm not. Nor are the homeless who gave up a long, long time ago. See my poem, "OLD MAN."

    I saw this old movie, I have the book. We aren't any better able to cope now than the people were then.


  7. Thanks Lucija.

    I'm amazing what people will convince of themselves of f it gives them a change to save money on taxes. Regarding trickle-down economics, we should have known, and I think many just rationalized the long-term bad effects on our country away. Welcome to the whirlwind they have reaped or all of us!

    I'm sorry to hear about your financial bind. My wife Shirley and I had to deal with Countrywide myself a couple years back when my father suddenly died and the house he and my mom lived in had to be sold. Thye did not have a subprime mortgage on their place, thank God.

    Countrywide treated me like a dirt-bag, even though I kept up on the mortgage, thanks to my dad's insurance policies. (My wife and I already had our own mortgage and living costs.) This company harassed me over the phone sometimes twice a day even AFTER my parents house was sold--- at a significant loss of its actual value. When it tried to contact them, to work out any arrangement, I could never get to speak to anybody in charge of a department.

    When these sub-prime mortgages Countrywide bundled up and shipped out into the economy went bad, they and their chairman Anthony Mozollo in my opinion did a great deal to cause this crisis, yet people blame Obama whose biggest problem is letting too many wall Street types into his inner circle.

    I'll be sure to look up your poem.

    And no we aren't in a better place when push comes to shove than that poor family on the land their family had for generations being evicted like cattle. No wonder so many were desperate then, and now.

  8. "And no we aren't in a better place when push comes to shove than that poor family on the land their family had for generations being evicted like cattle. No wonder so many were desperate then, and now."

    Point made!

    I have a "Bubble" friend who decided to retire at the age of forty two. She has hundreds of thousands invested, (not all is taxable), & now she whines, wondering how she's going to be "able to live."
    She lives in a bubble.
    She said Obama's health plan would euthanize people sixty five or over. When I asked her where she got this information, she said, "Oh, I heard it somewhere."
    A well educated woman in the health field all her life, her ex-husband a surgeon...these are the sort of people that worry me.

  9. I referred to OLD MAN because of its intimacy, but I forgot to the leave the link, again.

    Within the comments on the 'poem' I found this, apropos of my friend:
    "Sometime I feel that those who are blind, blind themselves to make others invisible for a variety of reasons."

    Amazing how, posted many comments reflect what we're discussing today.

  10. Yes, Lucija, I do run across these people, and they certainly seem educated. One fellow told me that the health care reform plan would turn America into "a Third World country, just like Britain and France."

    This same person is eligible for Medicare. i have to admit for a woman in health care field to believe all this, I'd have to say she's in one hell of a good "bubble".

  11. A heart-rending poem, all too true in many cases.
    Yes there is a lot of "creative blindness", even for those who call themselves public servants.

  12. I have always loved Steinbeck and have read most of his books including the Grapes of Wrath, he was a symbol of a great and very honourable American tradition when there was still a fight for decency in the US before the Mob took over. America has had such heroes and martyrs in its short history, but the real reason for national pride, the internationalists and the democrats have now been suppressed and hidden by the bloated CEOs of the corporate media. America's spirit of innovation has been stifled by those who would hypnotise and mesmerise the people, the advertisers and opinion formers, the lackies of the Washington Mafia that have attacked the moral fibre of America and have caused untold damage to the economy.
    Steinbeck reflects all that is worthy and honourable about America, the courage and hopefulness only to be deflated, defeated and stitched up by snake oil salesmen and con artists. The preachers and the the psychopaths that have destroyed the Enlightenment vision of freedom and inverted it into a gross distortion. I was in Salinas for the Steinbeck centenary in 2002, for qualities like his.... people would travel I think... I went more than 5,000 miles to pay my respects.
    The film is probably one of the best ever to come out of Hollywood in my opinion thanks for reviewing it here Doug, excellent!

  13. "Jolly banker" is a very appropriate song, well in keeping with modern events. If W.W. Guthrie could come back today hale and healthy, he could pick up right where he left off, fighting fascist and pseudo-fascists with his amazing "machine"

    I don't know if Woody Guthrie and Steinbeck knew each other, but they shared a concern for the underdog and for real small-d democracy, which is one of the legacies of the American Revolution lost, as you say, and distorted beyond such measure, as you rightly say.

    Authoritarians, moral prigs, plutocrats and tale-spinning hucksters now go about the political scene here, claiming they speak for everyone of the Founding Fathers! Imagine the gall! A group of men, better educated than the lot of these fools, claiming to speak for them.

    The fact is the FF couldn't agree on anything much beyond a mistrust of power lodged in one person or one entity. As Doctor Ben Franklin said, we could lose our freedom and the whole republic if too many citizens chose freedom over security.

    How great that you made that pilgrimage for the Centennial. I plan to go down and see The Steinbeck Center in Salinas next year, and its about time, that's all I can say. It's actually only about an hour's drive from where I grew up in San Jose so I won't want for old friends to accompany me.

  14. The Grapes of Wrath is a brilliant film. It shows the way people keep getting knocked down but bounce back until it happens so many times they lose the will to live. However, with a few folk there is always that goal in the distant horizon driving them on. There is also always one family member saying, it will all turn out fine even though they have a feeling it won't.

    I guess when there is the promise of work in a depression, the numbers of people applying saturate the employers so they can pick and choose. The desperation at that time was sad to witness even in a film. I read the book a few times and found it quite heartbreaking.

    Steinbeck was a brilliant author

  15. Not much I need add to your review, Cassandra.

    Yes ,the optimistic likely fare a great better in such hard times. Although the ending is more upbeat than that of the book, it is also powerful. Some in the party are gone, yet they go on.

    Despite the hard realities depicted, the film was a major success when it was released. It took a film like "Rebecca" to win over "Grapes" for the Best Picture Oscar that year. John Steinbeck later worked as a screenwriter with Hitchcock onwhat I think is one of his best films, "Lifeboat" (1944), a film about disparate people who survive a U-boat attack and how they cope with their fears and feelings for one another while hoping for Allied rescue.

    John Ford and his cinematographer Gregg Toland (who also shot "Citizen Kane" one year later) blended elements of stark on-location work (like the drive into the migrant camp) with the expressionistic studio-interior night scenes centered on Tom, Ma Joad and Casey that work so well at the last part of the film.

    Expressionism was something Ford evolved into his work in the late 1920's, a legacy of the German cinema artists, many of whom later came to England and America a few years later for economic and later mainly political reasons.

  16. If I remember rightly the book, "The Grapes of Wrath" was named after a line in the Battle Hymn.

    Brilliant title I think.

    I suppose the Sunshine States held much hope for people looking for a better way of life, yet for most it wasn't realised. I guess the over grazed lands, were bled dry and there were greedy landowners. When one looks at the Potato famine in Ireland, the land with its disease's and reliance on the weather can only give up so much.

    Yes, John Ford was a brilliant director at creating atmosphere.

    Ah, Rebecca, a much watched film by me. Do you know, I don't think I have seen "Lifeboat." I shall look it up when I get home from work. :-)

    Thank you Doug, very interesting.

  17. Yes, Julia Ward Howe, a northerner watching Union troops pass by her window headed to Virginia and the war front, wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in 1862.

    Yes , parts of the Middle West like Nebraska and Oklahoma were difficult places to scratch a living from in the best of times. Thousands who tried to farm or ranch in both blizzards and scorching heat (including one of my grandfathers back around 1905) gave up and headed West decades before the events depicted here.

    The Dust Bowl weather patterns--where top soil literally blew away into the atmosphere--had the same effect as the Great Potato Blight. Any governments in the 1840's were even less able to handle such a crisis.

    Always glad to recommend delving into a lesser-known Hitchcock film to a fellow fan of the Master of Suspense. Thank you Cassandra.