Written by: Nunnally Johnson
Starring: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Shirley Mills, John Qualen, Eddie Quillan
A particular desperation springs up when parents cannot even feed their children with the basic necessities in life. When it occurs with one family it’s a tragedy, when it occurs with large swaths of the population, we have a true problem on our hands. This level of desperation pushes the characters in The Grapes of Wrath to make some rash decisions, but when not a single piece of bread can be guaranteed, it pushes people to their limits.
With the Oklahoma Dust Bowl ravaging the Midwest, the Joad family hopes for a brighter future with the promises of jobs when they get to California. With Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) returning to the family after release from prison they all set out to make some money. On their route to a hopefully more fruitful living situation, they discover the dreams they have been sold come severely compromised with charlatans looking to take advantage of their desperation.
Adapted from one of the works of the great American writer John Steinbeck, this story seeks to display the anguish this family must go through. Living in a time where many families made their living from farming and the dust bowl ruining the chance for any profits, The Joad family truly gets put in a compromising position of no other opportunities around them even affording the financial resources to feed their children, which then gets ultimately shattered when the banks are recalling all the land. Bulldozing homes, now they must move for work and a new place to live. California provides them with a glimmer of hope. No matter how arduous the path there may be, the hope they have persists.
For the homey and old-fashioned feel this story has with this family connection, the radically progressive messaging this feature knocked me out of my socks. This ideal certainly does not kick in when initially thinking of John Ford as a filmmaker, but the messages laid out here truly demonstrate anti-capitalist views. As the Joad family makes their way to California, they understand not everything comes as rosy as they would like with potential employers shortchanging the workers and lying about what benefits they would provide. Anyone who dissents would be cast off and pay could be decreased at a moment’s notice. All about supply and demand, right? Instead, the savior and brighter solution to their dilemma end up being a government program as opposed to the one dominated by “the free market.” The differences in circumstances could not be farther apart in quality.
This sentiment throughout the film really took me back as the narrative tries to lay out the reality of when supply and demand gets to a very dangerous level where it threatens the livelihood of people just trying to feed their children. It got to a point where the Joad family had their pay cut in half where they collectively barely made enough money to even make a fulfilling dinner. Especially for the back-breaking work they put in all day, they could not refuse because they either take the reduced pay or have nothing. A lack of human decency arises without regulation, which does not occur when they reach the haven of a government-operated settlement providing the basics to the Joad family and others.
Additionally, the film frames the police in a particularly negative light as well in the way it shows them more as lackeys for charlatans rather than protectors of the law. Tom Joad certainly has no love for them. Never do they get cast in a positive light to the point where no character wants to call on them even if needed because of the unknown motivations these officers may have. A skewering criticism of how these departments ran during this era and where the priorities lied in supposedly keeping the peace. More at the whim of capitalist charlatans for union-busting rather than actually protecting the people of their city from those wishing to do harm.
Holding this all together is the Joad family and the camaraderie established in this feature serves as one of its biggest highlights. With endless reasons to give up due to the circumstances life continues to throw at them, a familial resilience refuses to leave them as they go about their days. To a heartwarming degree, their hope radiates amongst everything else happening around them. They know times continue to be rough for them but they continue to believe if, given the opportunity to work for their keep, they can accomplish it and thrive as a family. No scene shows this more than their initial arrival to California as they gaze upon a new state with opportunity. Beautiful in its presentation and serving as a distinguishable contrast to the reality set before them, the Joads represent an American grit we can all aspire to.
As resilient as it gets, the characters in The Grapes of Wrath truly get put through the wringer on more than one occasion, but when your children barely have enough to eat, this will push anyone to do whatever it takes to put food on the table. The film has no issues in blaming those making this process harder and the others genuinely trying to help people. Showing this to people today would accuse this film of being woke in its ideals, which only further shows how dangerous capitalism can be when left completely unchecked.