The Grapes of Wrath: The Values of John Ford and John Steinbeck

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on December 1, 1995 @ University of Dayton Review.

The Grapes of Wrath is as fertile and sprawling as the American Dream itself. It is a document about the American spirit. capturing the strifes and struggles of the American Dreamer as he tenaciously pursues the grail that is somewhere in the distance.

Many people confuse the Dream with the American Success Story-rags to riches. But it is much more than that. The American Success Story is merely material; the American Dream is spiritual. The components of the American Dream are basic to the well-being of our souls. They are individuality, affinity with nature. freedom, and most of all, fulfillment, not mere satisfaction. One who has achieved the Dream may not be happy or content, but he is fulfilled. He has\done his best, and his soul is alive. In a world of well poisoners, the artist always understands this and is committed to fulfillment of the Dream. The marketplace tries to thwart him, and society tries to make him conventional. but though the artist may try to compromise. he cannot sacrifice the Dream to the dreamless. He cannot give up the truth he has sought so hard and found.

Perhaps Christ was the great Dreamer. Literature again and again refers to him as the ultimate spiritual figure, the eternal artist. In The Grapes of Wrath Jim Casy joins a select group of spiritual, literary figures: Jim Conklin in The Red Badge of Courage, Jerry in Edward Albee`s The Zoo Story, Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, Jay Gatsby, James Castle in The Catcher in the Rye, Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter, Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea. Actually that particular spiritual figure is legion in literature.

If Jim Casy joins their ranks, Tom Joad also joins the ranks of those who hear and i understand: Henry Fleming eventually understands Jim Conklin; Peter (ah, that symbolic figure!) listens to Jerry; Marlow learns the truth from Kurtz; Nick Carraway learns a spiritual lesson from Gatsby; Holden Caulfield is affected by the death of James Castle; Dimmesdales death by the scaffold transforms Pearl; and Santiago tells the boy Manolin to give the head of his fish to Pedrico. The Grapes of Wrath is in the mainstream of literature in which a character passes spirituality on to an observer who in turn passes it on to us the readers.

John Steinbeck passed his spiritual vision on to the film director John Ford with the hopes that Ford might be able to elude the Hollywood bean counters. Bean counters are not grape drinkers, Steinbeck was fortunate that his work was given to Ford. Both Steinbeck and Ford have sometimes glaring deficiencies -- particularly a tendency toward obviousness and sentimentality -- but both have a vision, and both are artists.

There is a great kinship between John Steinbeck and John Ford. Both have an abiding love of the land, both have faith in community, whether it be the family, the cavalry, or people joined together in a small truck on a long road-the long road home (to name a film Ford directed). And the work of both serves humanity -- they create anthems to the human spirit.

Was John Ford able to stay true to the vision of Steinbeck? Tom's parting from Ma Joad and his transcendental message could stay intact. But obviously it was impossible, given the sensibilities of the time, to film the crucial scene where Rosasharn gives her breast to the starving man. The ending of the novel is positive: how could the film express the same optimism without Rosasharns offering? Many critics feel that lifting Ma`s humanistic speech from the middle of the novel and placing it at the end is badly contrived. But the film's ending has the attitude of the book. Both Steinbeck and Ford look to the future.

The movie rights to The Grapes of Wrath were bought by Darryl F. Zanuck, the production head of Twentieth Century-Fox studios. The price was $70.000. the ` highest amount paid for film rights in 1939, and the third highest amount ever paid up to that time.

Zanuck hired Nunnally Johnson to write the screenplay.

But the degree that The Grapes of Wrath succeeds as a film is not due to its script: it is due to its direction. John Ford made four films for Zanuck -- Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, Grapes, How Green Was My Valley, the first three starring Henry Fonda. Ford and Zanuck were very fortunate to cast Henry Fonda as Tom Joad -- he gives the film humanity at its core. and it desperately needs it. Fonda evokes quiet, human passion. In the film version of The Grapes of Wrath unfortunately most of the characters are caricatures. Silliness replaces humanity. O.Z. Whitehead as Al is a bumbling, squeaky-voiced cartoon. Granpa and Granma are buffoons. Even though the film hired some Okies, it doesn't have convincing verisimilitude. The human condition becomes the Hollywood conditioning. The hungry children outside Mas look like kids from a Hollywood lot -- neat and conventional. They look as though they didnt miss breakfast. Dirt, grime, and squalor are absent. There is an artfully placed smudge of dirt on Tom Joad`s cap. One can imagine the powder puffs of dirt being strategically wielded; cosmetic powder replaces dirt.

But despite the sanitizing and the addled actors. Fonda`s presence gives the film potency and credibility. He redeems what otherwise might have been laughable. One is grateful that Ford pushed for Fonda when Zanuck wanted either Don Ameche or Tyrone Power. One can imagine Tom Joad as Alexander Graham Bell or a swashbuckling Tom Joad. Ford was also fortunate in the casting of John Carradine as Jim Casy. ln a very difficult role Carradine makes Casy about as believable as the character can be.

Although Jane Darwell won an Oscar as Ma Joad. she is the actress that receives the most criticism. Zanuck would not move from the choice of Darwell although Ford wanted Beulah Bondi; Ford was forced to accept Darwell, who was a contract player on the Fox lot. Pauline Kael, the inestimable film critic for The New Yorker, wrote of Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, "I thought she was impossibly fraudulent". But the Academy of Motion Pictures loved her.

Two of the best American film critics -- Kael and James Agee -- are very negative about the film. Agee says. "I would talk to even so good a director as John Ford, for instance, with deep respect for him as a technicianand as a serious man, but I might at the same time regret ninety-nine feet in every hundred of The Grapes of Wrath, and be able to specify my regret". Even though Agee doesn`t specify his disenchantment, we can guess what causes his distress. Agee created one of the classic non-fiction works of the twentieth century, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, writing the prose that accompanied the stark and stunning photographs that Walker Evans took of Alabama sharecroppers, so he knew the true images and sensibilities of the poor and poverty-stricken. We can understand his rejection of the film's lack of authenticity. Kael too was critical. Kael wrote, "The famous film, high on almost all lists of the great films of all time, seems all wrong -- phony when we want it to be `true` --."

And yet Kael does find value in the film; she writes, "and yet, because of its raw material, it is moving in spite of its acting, the direction, and the pseudo-biblical pore- people talk".

It is wrong-headed to dismiss the direction and say that the film is moving only because of its "raw material." The film of The Grapes of Wrath is moving because of its direction. Despite missteps, John Ford takes that "raw material" Kael affirmed and makes it into something artful and moving. As John Baxter says, "The Grapes of Wrath is neither Steinbeck nor documentary realism, but is Ford". And Ford is America. His vision has captured the spirit and the rhythm of America. He is an American film poet, and like the best of America's poets, he has a dark side. He saw the frontier shrinking and perhaps disappearing altogether. And one of the dark ironies is that this master film director was not allowed to make a film for the last seven years of his life. The marketplace does not treat its poets kindly.

John Ford is one of the great auteurs -- one of the great authors of film. His personality is in the style and vision of all his films. Like Steinbeck, Ford was a master story-teller, but unlike Steinbeck he was also a master stylist. One doesn`t read the prose of Steinbeck for the felicity of its language. Steinbeck is not graceful. Steinbeck, like Stephen King, is a great story-teller. But Ford is also a great stylist. One does look at his films for the felicity of their film language -- the beauty of their composition, and the evocative grace of their style.

When Ford is at his best, as in My Darling Clementine and The Searchers, he captures an America that has both grandeur and palpable, melancholy alienation. Many of Ford's characters are searching for an identity in a world that is changing for the worse, a world that is losing its soul. In The Searchers, perhaps Ford's best film, Ethan Edwards (portrayed by John Wayne) has come back from the War between the States. At the end, Ethan is left outside as the family goes into the house and civilization. In perhaps the definitive Ford /Wayne shot, Wayne is framed by the doorway. He tums to the Monument Valley wilderness as the door closes.

In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance Tom Doniphon (again Wayne) who represents the Old West is replaced by Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), attorney at law, who represents the New West of law and civilization. In The Last Hurrah, adapted from the Edwin O'Connor novel, Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy) represents the old Boston politics, manipulative but effective, who is voted out by the New Politics -- the venal media. In all three films the principal character dies, but more importantly, a way of life dies with him. And the frontier, the West which has been the goal of man`s quest for freedom and fulfillment, is gone.

One of the great assets that Ford had in The Grapes of Wrath was his cinematographer Gregg Toland. Ironically, Gregg Toland did not even receive an Academy Award nomination for his luminous photography: instead his nomination that year was for The Long Voyage Home. The next year Toland was to create the celebrated photography for Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. Toland's photography in The Grapes of Wrath captured the life in Tom Joad and Jim Casy. Toland`s camera truly loved Fonda and Carradine. And Ford and Toland made the land a character. .

Both John Steinbeck and John Ford see the land as a source of spirit. In The Grapes of Wrath the Joads are thrown off the land they have farmed, and then their quest is to seek a new land, the milk and honey of California. For Ford, this idea of displacement from the land is important, for he saw Monument Valley, as his Eden. Monument Valley is an area of mesas and grandeur of about two thousand square miles in northeast Arizona and southeast Utah. Monument Valley is the setting for seven John Ford films. In a Cosmopolitan interview of March, 1964, Ford said, "Actually, the thing most accurately portrayed in the Western is the land. I think you can say that the real star of my Westerns has always been the land."

Another source of spirit for both Steinbeck and Ford is community. In his famous interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Ford talked about Steinbeck's story, "I just liked it, that's all. I'd read the book -- it was a good story -- and Darryl Zanuck had a good script on it. The whole thing appealed to me -- being about simple people -- and the story was similar to the famine in Ireland, when they threw people off the land and left them wandering on the roads to starve. That may have had something to do with it -- part of my Irish tradition -- but I liked the idea of this family going out and trying to find their way in the world. It was a timely story...".

The Grapes of Wrath is like Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finnin that the west still offers hope. In 1939, like Twain in 1884, John Ford was still hopeful; there was still the possibility of frontier. Eventually Ford and Twain lost their hope. Perhaps they lived too long.

But The Grapes of Wrath is an optimistic novel -- one of the most optimistic classic novels in American literature -- and a positive film. The Grapes of Wrath seems an ideal project for Ford with its epic sense of America and its Fordian themes of community and alienation. Obviously Hollywood thought so too because Ford won his second Academy Award for directing it.

When Playboy asked Orson Welles what American directors appealed to him most, Welles said, "The old which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford." And to Bogdanovich, Welles said, "John Ford knows what the earth is made of."

With The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck and John Ford were fellow explorers. Steinbeck. in his classic novel, and Ford, in his classic film, explored the soul of the land. And together they explored the land of the soul.

© 2000-2022 Tony Macklin