In the mid 1930’s, an unyielding drought turned the unanchored, over-cultivated soil of the Great Plains into dust and winds pitched this dirt into the air—ruining several states’-worth of farmland in the process. The resulting Dust Bowl forced the eviction of 3.5 million Americans, many of whom travelled west to California in the largest migration event in American history. A few short years later, in the Spring of 1939, John Steinbeck released his novel “The Grapes of Wrath”. By October of that year, a film version went into production and it was turned around and released by January of 1940. While the film holds up, it wouldn’t necessarily be my first pick for entertainment. Rather, it stands more prominently as a time capsule for a moment in American history often overshadowed.
Like the book (which I haven’t read, BTW), the film follows the Joad family as they upend, pack up the jalopy, and hit the road for a better life in California. This is the dreary version of “suitcase and a dream”, folks: After losing relatives on the treacherous, desert journey, they arrive in California to learn that it’s hardly the promised land. In a migratory “tale as old as time”, California “locals” detest and harass the “Okies” (from Oklahoma), forcing them out of town and back on the road. Farms *actually* offering work then pit the disproportionate surplus of hands against one another to drive wages menacingly low. It’s against this backdrop that the Joads must struggle desperately to stay together and survive.
I admit, this film wasn’t really my speed. It was pretty aggressively depressing; even a third-act rewrite that turns the novel’s grave finale into an almost-happy ending wasn’t enough to engage me. I get that this was entirely the film’s purpose and I suppose that watching it from within the Great Depression may have produced some sort of cathartic, misery-loves-company stress relief, but it was just kind of sad and boring to me.
And yet, despite not particularly caring for the film, I will admit that it sort of stuck with me. The first thing that stands out is its pretty severe anti-capitalism bent. Being released smack dab between America’s two Red Scares, the film’s stance was fascinating to me and demonstrative of how scarring the Great Depression truly was for a whole generation of Americans. This has to be one of the earliest examples of the "social justice Hollywood" we've all come to know and love/hate. I also want to praise Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell’s performances. Darwell (who would later portray the “Bird Lady” in Mary Poppins) was as much of the anchor of the film as she was for the Joad family. There's not much of a happy ending you can give a story the ends with a drive to Fresno, but a few stirring monologues did the trick enough.
And that's all I really have to say on The Grapes of Wrath.