|'The Grapes of Wrath': Bleed the Bitter Truth|
|By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic|
06:51PM / Thursday, April 23, 2020
I wish that I were reviewing one of the half-dozen movies certain to be made when this pox upon our house is no more. But until that glorious return to normality has us resuming all the simple joys of life we take for granted, like going to the movies, I'll be retro-reviewing and thereby sharing with you the films that I've come to treasure over the years, most of which can probably be retrieved from one of the movie streaming services. It is my fondest hope that I've barely put a dent into this trove when they let the likes of me back into the Bijou.
Those who have long suffered my tortured prose have John Steinbeck and, more specifically, his novel, "The Grapes of Wrath," adapted to the screen by the great John Ford in 1940, to blame.
He and it were what made me decide to be a writer. Thanks for the agony and the ecstasy, Mr. Steinbeck, as I've ever since held that anything less astute in concept, construction and social import than your sweeping chronicle of the Joad family's journey to California during The Great Depression wasn't worthy of my efforts. Thus, the apparent delay.
This epochal contribution to cinema, history and the socioeconomic analysis of the American character, starring Henry Fonda's Tom Joad as a pilgrim amidst the tragedy of a capitalist system blind to society's urgencies, is that rare case where the film is almost as good as the book. So beware, arch conservatives who couldn't care less about the plight of the poor, except that they conveniently serve as expendable cheap labor. Your offspring could become enamored of this paean to humanitarianism in some college film appreciation course and, upon subsequently taking the reins of the family megacorp, may want to institute progressive improvements. Maybe even a living wage and, G-d forbid, a decent health plan.
In short, you don't have to look far for why the recent rash of anti-intellectual, anti-scientific insanity has put its faith in the greedy, inept and wholly corrupt mitts of a sociopathic fiend. It becomes increasingly apparent as the storied 1/10 th of 1 percent ramps up its campaign to disenfranchise the Great Unwashed. If humans of every stripe aren't to suffer the fate of dinosaurs, the essence of cooperation signaled by our inherent gregariousness will be key to our survival.
Conquering nature requires all hands on deck. Y'know…a mind is a terrible thing to waste. It just might be that, thanks to a school breakfast program in some otherwise forsaken city ghetto or rural holler, little Jane will not only survive, but perhaps invent a cure for whatever ill waits around the next corner.
Tom Joad, who probably didn't complete grade school, doubtlessly doesn't understand the political dynamics of why he and his family are forced to leave the land they've sharecropped for several generations. Disingenuously circulated flyers beckon them to the fruit-picking promise of California. However, before the closing credits roll, Tom will come to symbolize through the odyssey of the mind that intertwines with the arduous traipse along Route 66, humanity's quest for a kinder and gentler world.
In the meantime, John Carradine's magnificently etched Casy, the disaffected preacher who accompanies the Joads on their trek, first instills in Tom and represents the grand quandary at the heart of the saga. Explaining his dismay in a performance that sorely deserves a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Casy says: "Tom, you gotta learn like I'm learnin'. I don't know it right yet myself. That's why I can't ever be a preacher again. Preachers gotta know. I don't know. I gotta ask."
Other superb supporting portrayals, like John Qualen's Muley, a Joad neighbor driven mad by the Caterpillar tractors razing the shacks across the Dustbowl ruins, importantly complement the wonderful evocations of the Joad family, featuring Jane Darwell in the matriarchal role of Ma Joad that did garner an Academy Award; Charley Grapewin as the heartbreakingly despondent Grandpa; and Russell Simpson as the stoical, take-it-on-the-chin, salt of the Earth Pa Joad.
We like the Joads — a lot. They just want to live and let live. We don't denigrate them for not aspiring to accumulate wealth at the expense of anyone who gets in their way. You see, the truth is, try as some may, not everyone is good at making money. And we are neither as ignorant nor as lacking in social conscience as the antiseptically attired gas station attendant who, when encountering the Joads just before they set across the foreboding desert, says to his colleague:
"You and me got sense. Them Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain't human. Human being wouldn't live the way they do. Human being couldn't stand to be so miserable."
It's the theme of our species: the haves against the have-nots. And Steinbeck who, along with my parents and a bit of prodding from a few profs fostered my political thought, perceptively injects his social treatise with how the rich, the really, really rich and not their stooge lackeys, play this curse of inequity to their advantage. "Reds, reds ... what's all this talk about reds?" asks Tom when bat and gun-wielding strikebreakers in the employ of fruit growers invoke the old commie ploy against the impoverished pickers already laboring for pennies a bushel. It hasn't changed. Have you seen the prices for food on Amazon? Pick a catastrophe, any catastrophe, and make money on it.
But hark! There is an inherent promise in Tom. While he certainly hasn't read either Karl Marx or John Maynard Keynes, he is the innocent, unwitting hero who, giving himself up to a search for an as yet untapped portion of the human essence beyond the primitive dogma of Left and Right, hopes to grasp an antidote to "The Grapes of Wrath."
"The Grapes of Wrath," a 20th Century Fox release directed by John Ford, stars Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell and John Carradine. Running time: 129 minutes