The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Directed by John Ford
Relatively rare are cinematic masterpieces adapted from literary masterpieces, and claiming as one John Ford's 1940 version of classic Depression-era novel The Grapes of Wrath makes for a more complex case than it would at first seem. Filmed during Ford's progressive-populist period (e.g., the anti-big business sentiments of Stagecoach and the pro-labor sympathies of How Green Was My Valley) and informed by his strong emotional connection to the Irish Potato Famine, Grapes is nonetheless a paradox, a work of social criticism that ever so slightly mitigates the harsh indictment of its bleak source text, and a depiction of economic injustice in which hardship is evoked in nearly unsurpassed pictorial beauty. The latter comes courtesy of Gregg Toland—a year away from lensing Citizen Kane—who turns the apocalyptic dusks of the scarred Oklahoma Dust Bowl into rich layers of gloom, and the dreaded nights of dimly lit, militantly patrolled workers' camps into deep, mysterious wells of shadow.
Which begs the question: is The Grapes of Wrath too beautiful? Ultimately no, and not only because Ford and Toland achieve realism rather than over-stylization. Beauty isn't just truth but dignity, and Grapes makes this its guiding principle, from Henry Fonda's iconic everyman portrayal of burgeoning working-class hero Tom Joad to screenwriter Nunnally Johnson's artful adaptation (with the help of mastermind producer Darryl Zanuck) of Steinbeck's outraged, panoramic study of a labor culture in the grips of painful upheaval into a linear, family-centered narrative. Compromises are conspicuous in the tempering of the novel's full-on Leftism and an ending that verges on sainthood canonization (Preston Sturges may have had such righteousness in mind when making Sullivan's Travels in 1941), though that doesn't mean Grapes shouldn't represent the pinnacle of a now extinct species: the humanistic, socially conscious prestige picture.
November 26-December 2 at Film Forum