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Grapes’ a bittersweet experience

Brian Doxtader | Tuesday, April 4, 2006

A truly great film is both timely and timeless, at once encapsulating and simultaneously transcending its era. Director John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940) is such a film – a socially aware examination of the Great Depression and a moving story about a family’s resilience in the face of impossible odds.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by John Steinbeck, “The Grapes of Wrath” follows the Joad family on a trek from the Dust Bowl to California in search of a new life. Led by recently released convict Tom Joad (Henry Fonda, in one of his finest and most moving performances), the Joads suffer through the trials and tribulations of Depression-era class struggles as they travel across America looking for work. The family includes the resilient Ma Joad (Jane Darwell), pregnant sister Rosasharn (Doris Bowden) and for a time, ex-preacher Casey (John Carradine). Through it all, the Joad family learns to endure and find hope in the confusion and stark reality of Depression-era America.

Everything about “The Grapes of Wrath” is a cut above. Nunnally Johnson’s adaptation of Steinbeck’s book is less depressing than the original text, but is still as emotionally affecting. The starkly beautiful cinematography by “Citizen Kane” photographer Gregg Toland is striking and effective. Ford always had an eye for composition, and it doesn’t fail him here, allowing for some truly wonderful shots – the camera, unfortunately, is often static (it was, after all, the pre-“Citizen Kane” days of complex camera movements), but the editing and framing make up for any other cinematic shortcomings.

Fonda controls the film from beginning to end, and his sensitive performance is the centerpiece of a solid cast. He is galvanizing, inflecting Tom Joad with a haunted exhaustion – yet there is a strange kind of power in his eyes, a sense of hopefulness that prevents his character from tumbling over the edge. The audience finds itself rooting for the Joad family, hoping their luck will turn around even as they get further and further away from their home. And unlike the novel, which ends on a disturbing and disquieting note, Ford’s film ends with a sense of enthusiasm about the future, a belief in the endurance of the human spirit.

Ford made his reputation on the Western, and although “The Grapes of Wrath” isn’t technically an oater, its setting and content lend themselves well to his grand style. While the director may have better films in his impressive canon (1939’s “Stagecoach,” 1956’s “The Searchers” and 1962’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”), few are as enduringly timeless as “The Grapes of Wrath.” The Joad family becomes an effective symbol of the Everyman, explained first by Tom to Ma Joad in the film’s most famous scene (“I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look”) and then by Ma Joad to her husband: “We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out. They can’t lick us. And we’ll go on forever, Pa … ’cause we’re the people.” Ford understood people with an insight and power matched by few directors before or since. “The Grapes of Wrath” will certainly endure as a snapshot of its time, but beyond even that, it will endure as a testament to the resilience and power of the human spirit.