Grapes of Wrath, The (1940): John Ford’s Masteriece, Starring Henry Fonda in Iconic, Oscar-Nominated Performance

“The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that became a 1940 classic John Ford film, is now a genuine American myth of the Huckleberry Finn status.

Both novel and film are filled with the basic elements of American myth, including the evocative motif of the open road, but Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath is notably less political than the book. While Steinbeck called out for social action, the film version was content to just make the American public aware of the tragedy that was occurring in the American West, devoid of political context. When Tom Joad complains in the film that, “Lotta times looks like the gov’ment got more interest in a dead man than a live one,” it is only a hint of Steinbeck’s dark view of society within an optimistic Hollywood movie.

It’s a telling anecdote that at the time the film’s producer, Daryl Zanuck, actually had to send investigators to Oklahoma to legitimize the project in the eyes of the red-baiters of the day. When Zanuck’s investigators found that the predicament of the “Oakies” was even worse than Steinbeck had described, Zanuck was confident that he could defend attacks on The Grapes of Wrath that the film was pro-Communist.

The watered-down film version of the novel, which opened on January 24, 1940, did much to sell the story of the Joads to the general public in the States but may have damaged the story’s long-term political credibility, at least as Steinbeck had intended it. For instance, Ma’s mini-speech at the end of the film (“We’re the people”) sounds oblivious today. Although the film version of The Grapes of Wrath is a Hollywood classic for its cinematography by Gregg Toland, and great performances from Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell and others, it might be more accurately titled The Raisins of Wrath, at least from a political standpoint.

Still, it is the less political, uplifting Hollywood version of The Grapes of Wrath that Americans will always remember. Even leftist folk singer Woody Guthrie was inspired by the film, rather than the book. After seeing the movie, Guthrie wrote his most famous collection of songs, the Dust Bowl Ballads. Guthrie recalls in a collection of his writings entitled Pastures of Plenty: “I made twelve records called Dust Bowl Ballads for Victor after I seen Grapes of Wrath a couple or three times in a row.” Guthrie’s song “Tom Joad” summarized and immortalized the Hollywood version of The Grapes of Wrath, lifting lines from Tom Joad’s “I’ll be ever’where” speech in the film. Guthrie’s reaction to Ford’s film was typical of The Grapes of Wrath’s audiences in 1940: it convinced Americans that, yes, the people would live forever, as long as they kept working hard.

The film is full of memorable scenes, which have guaranteed its place in the Movie Hall of Fame, as well as in American Myth. Take for instance the nostalgic return from prison of the prodigal son, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), to his family homestead. Or Tom’s fateful meeting with Jim Casey (a Jesus Christ figure), a disaffected preacher. Or how about Ma burning letters and postcards of happier days on the night before the family departs from Oklahoma to California

The most memorable scene of all, though, was the moving farewell between Tom and his Ma, as Tom decides to leave the family to fulfill a spiritual calling. His determination to find what’s wrong and see what he can do about it would sit well with George Bush and his “Points of Light” campaign.

In fact, Tom’s final speech in the film sounds disarmingly similar to the Bush-inspired Randy Travis song, Points of Light: “I’ll be ever’where – wherever you 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 – an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our people eat the stuff they raise, an’ live in the houses they build, why, I’ll be there too.” The speech comes off as more of a dreamy poem than a call to action, which again goes against Steinbeck’s original purpose for writing The Grapes of Wrath.

The film ends with another great Hollywood speech, this time from Ma: “We keep a-comin’. We’re the people that live. Can’t nobody wipe us out. Can’t nobody lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa. We’re the people.” These lines were appropriately not even written by Steinbeck, but by Daryl Zanuck.

Tom Joad was Henry Fonda’s favorite all-time role, for which he received his first and only Oscar nomination until 1981’s On Golden Pond. Fonda was the first choice of author Steinbeck, a close personal friend, and director Ford, who previously directed the actor in Young Mr. Lincoln.

But Steinbeck and Ford had to fight for Fonda. It’s hard to believe today that Fox initially considered its contract players Tyrone Power and Don Ameche for the part. To get the movie, Fonda had to give up his freelance status and appear in other Fox movies that were not as worthy of his talent.

Oscar Alert

Nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, “The Grapes of Wrath” won two: Best Director for John Ford and Supporting Actress for Jane Darwel.

The Best Picture winner in 1940 was Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” his first American movie.