Seventy six years on, The Grapes of Wrath’s star has faded noticeably, but it’s hardly been marginalized to the corners of cinematic history, even if the film explores the perverse marginalization of the American populace and the necrotization of an American dream mutilated beyond recognition. One would be surprised if a student of cinema meaningfully preferred this Best Picture winner over director John Ford’s masterful prior film, 1939’s Stagecoach (the best film from what many consider the most important year in American cinema, but that’s a story for another time). Hell, a thoughtful formalist might even prefer Ford’s next film, the frequently marginalized How Green Was My Valley (it’s no Citizen Kane, but what film is?). Still, square as it may be compared to the rebellious upstarts of the ‘70s and the hip young things of the American independent movement in the ‘50s, Ford’s incomparable skill for marshalling the formal principles of cinema for tales of plain-spoken, relatively unromantic Romanticism was usually untouched in the Classical era. If The Grapes of Wrath isn’t actually close to the apex of his career, it’s a sturdy and lyrical, if hardly revelatory, tapestry all the same.
Getting the flaws out of the way first, the screenplay by Nunnally Johnson leads a sheltered existence verbally, if not socially. Its heart is in the right place, but the unruhe he brings to the silent, prosaic moments of protagonist Tom Joad walking across the barren existential crisis of the American road is not matched by the sometimes deliriously overwrought speeches Johnson forces out of his actors’ mouths. Henry Fonda, starring as Tom, is one of the great American actors, but even his characteristically humane relaxation as a performer isn’t enough to save a final monologue to the audience that could strangle a sensible person within seconds. Any reticence about hopping aboard and riding this train to a more enlightened area of American thought is sure to come from Johnson’s occasionally overblown prose.
Still, with Ford at the helm, the train of cinematic beauty is essentially never late. The Grapes of Wrath is not as plainly drunk on imagery as many of his other rapturous diamonds of the Classical Era. But his matter-of-fact visual pragmatism (shoot ‘em, and shoot ‘em quick) battens down the hatches on cinematographer Gregg Toland’s more expressive chiaroscuro, marshalling this contradiction in styles for an iridescent parable that can be read as everyday, quasi-realist tableaux or a more sensuous, relatively unsublimated metaphor for the loss of innocence in American life. Umbrage can be taken with the way the film sands down writer John Steinbeck’s elegantly blunt prose; Ford’s film is not exactly hurling Molotov cocktails or spitting in the face of social order, or the diction of conventional narrative order. But, within its more domesticated confines, you can still feel the midnight chill of a hollowed-out nation desperately trying to reverberate with meaning yet again.
In other words, the hip, cosmopolitan denial of this film’s classical style belies a genuine, sumptuous beauty in Ford’s pristine but straightforward framing and especially Gregg Toland’s dust-covered magnificence in the lensing department. There are stop-overs in every corner of the American dream (except race, which is expectantly but not excusably absent here), and Toland massages each scene into its most ideal self. Check out the lonely, bitter petrifaction in the night sky during a meeting of the so-called socialist “agitators”, the harsh focus making them look like displaced specters haunting an America that would rather hide or stamp them out than acknowledge their pain. Or the ensuing visual agitation of a shoot-out that fells a thoughtful freedom fighter as Toland lets the noirish expressionism fly.
Elsewhere, for the strangulating clutter of daily life in the camps, the production design packs a surfeit of American ephemera and materiality into tightly composed frames as people try to construct, cling to, or cordon off privacy, even “private” land, for themselves even within public camps, holding onto the very memories of American individualism and self-improvement that oppressed them in the first place. Perhaps sharpest of all is the comparatively spartan wide-angle framing of the Joad family’s rust-bucket trip from Oklahoma to the apocryphal promised land of California; Ford and Toland invoke the boldface, melancholy beauty of an impossibly expansive landscape that – throttled into submission by crisis and drought – is no longer a fount for success but an obstacle that must be overcome, reducing the humans into diminutive insects in the frame.
Every sequence brings an even more vivid depiction of space and the human’s drive to debate their place within a land that now seems less like home and more like a dream drawn and quartered. There’s nothing particularly challenging or irresponsible here, but the impeccable nature of the simplicity channels broadness into a kind of understated but mythic reflection rather than ogre-like refusal to complicate a complicated matter. And reflective The Grapes of Wrath is, as well as improbably moving by the benighted standards of message or social issue pictures from the time (or any time, as anti-filmic drivel like The Imitation Game reveal). At its most evocative, it’s a purely visual tale, with the starkness of a displaced, transient life insinuated in the spare visuals that leave few possessions for the central Joad family on a quest to find suitable life in California.
Of course the flaws are readily apparent and sometimes seemingly innumerable. Yes, the film partly smothers the ever-motile migrancy of the family’s strife in cloying musical cues and baroque speeches written for the soap box and the ballot box more than for the human ear. Yes, that plain-spoken poetry Steinbeck and Ford alike both reveled in can’t quite survive Tom Joad’s final speech, an incantation that hexes the rest of the film with its broad, over-blown, masturbatory prose. And yes, that year’s Rebecca, a production fantasia of morbid elegance and perverse, sensual suggestion, is simultaneously a more death-stricken and livelier beast today. But The Grapes of Wrath is a vividly drawn, improbably lensed, thoughtfully episodic tale where the relative dissolving of a clear narrative structure in favor of a piecemeal tale weaved out of moments effectively suggests the corrosion of narrative stability and forward progress in the lives of people strewn about the land. Ultimately, Ford’s story is one of people who lack a story to cling to, excepting that which they make, or claw toward, each day.