Thursday, November 12, 2009

Trampling Out the Vintage

200px-JohnSteinbeck_TheGrapesOfWrath When I was in eighth grade, our English teacher, Mr. Robert McConville, chose a novel for each of us to read and report on. The one he chose for me was John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and it was a wonderful choice for me. It had a very strong influence on my politics, and also became one of the novels I would remember always. (I did reread it a few years ago and felt just as strongly.) In 1991, the Steppenwolf Theater’s production of a play based on the novel was shown on PBS and I watched that, but for some reason I had never seen the John Ford film until this evening.

I’m not going to do an exhaustive review just now, but wanted to put down a few thoughts (and also get my daily blogpost in before bedtime!)

  • What actors do we have now who can convey sincere idealism as well as Henry Fonda and James Stewart did? Is this something that 21st century actors are even asked to do?
  • In the opening scene where Tom Joad (Fonda) hitches a ride to get home and insists on telling the driver he's been in prison, as he leaves the truck he tells the driver he was in the penitentiary for "homicide" which he pronounces "home-icide." Shortly afterwards he and Preacher Casey are told about the real "home-icide" by Muley -- the sharecroppers' homes being knocked down by tractors.
  • In the book, Weedpatch Camp (run by the USDA) is presented as an oasis in the middle of the Joad family’s journey. In the movie, it’s called Wheat Patch Camp, appears near the end of the film as almost the Promised Land (although the family leaves it for the promise of cotton-picking work in Fresno).
  • Throughout the film I kept hearing Woody Guthrie's Ballad of Tom Joad and Vigilante Man in my head.
  • The supporting actors in the film looked so realistic as starving migrants that I was surprised when I looked them up and discovered I’d seen them in other films. I do wonder about some of the extras, whether they were real “Okies and Arkies.”
  • Speaking of which, when OHP and I were in the Monterey Bay area of California (near Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas), there was a local establishment called “Tressie’s Okie and Arkie Tavern.” I never went there, though. It sounded a little scary. But since I’m talking about 1971-72 here, someone much like Tom Joad could well have been the owner.
  • The term “Great Migration” means a lot of different things in U.S. history. The first was the Puritan migration to New England, which began in 1630 and about which much has been written. The Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the northern industrial cities has been the subject of several books. I’m thinking that I would love to read a family/social history of some of the real people who, like the Joads, traveled Route 66 from Oklahoma, Arkansas and the rest of the Dust Bowl to California in the 1930s. I wonder how things turned out for them after all their suffering?
  • It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t see this film a long time ago, since it was only digitally restored in 2003, so a print seen earlier (according to the extra feature about the restoration) would have been of much lower picture quality.
    I would definitely recommend both the book and the film for understanding of an important period in our history, and also for their literary and cinematic artistry.


Vicki Lane said...

I suggested this book -- important, moving, literate -- to one of my brighter eighth-graders back in the Seventies and, while he loved it, I received a visit from his angry mother who was mightily offended by the scene in which Rosasharn feeds the starving man.

The mother was not impressed by my mention of the milk of human kindness . . .

Auntie Knickers said...

Vicki, even though I was pretty sure that scene wouldn't have made it into the 1940 movie, I kept waiting for it. As best I could tell, when the movie ends she either has not had the child yet or is recovering from the stillbirth (they lift her onto the mattress on top of the truck going to Fresno.) Within the constraints of filmmaking of the time, I think the screenwriter and director (and actors) did a great job, though.

LutheranChik said...

My maternal relatives were hit hard by the Depression -- my grandfather wound up leaving Detroit, where he couldn't find work, and wound up sharecropping in northern Michigan -- and books/films from that era always remind me how genuinely hard life was in those times. As sympathetic as I am to families experiencing tough times's really not like it was during the Great Depression.