by Leslie Gossage
Athough audiences still want to see John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) — the film is available from Twentieth Century-Fox in 16-mm and 3 5 -mm film, and in an inexpensive video — it has been belittled by critics since the emergence of scholarly interest in American film in the 1960s. Pauline Kael remembers it as “embarrassingly sentimental.”1 Andrew Sarris called it “New Deafish propaganda [that]… has dated badly.”2 Ford biographers expected better control from the master craftsman. Scholars of film adaptations of novels emphasize its flaws and the compromises of the text made by screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and producer Daryl F. Zanuck. Yet, when it came out, it was acclaimed. The film was chosen as best picture for 1940 by both the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics. Jane Darwell won an Oscar for her performance as Ma Joad. For his direction, John Ford received both the Oscar and an award from the New York Film Critics. Of the film Life magazine said, “bitter, authentic, honest, it marches straight to its tragic end.”3 The New York Times critic Frank Nugent, who had denigrated Zanuck’s films so often that Twentieth Century-Fox had pulled its advertising from the Times, placed Grapes on the “one small uncrowded shelf devoted to cinema’s masterworks.”4 The man most likely to have noticed the detrimental effects of Hollywood on Grapes, Steinbeck himself, wrote in praise of the film to his agent Elizabeth Otis, December 15, 1939:
We went down in the afternoon and that evening saw Grapes at Twentieth Century. Zanuck has more than kept his word. He has a hard, straight picture in which the actors are submerged so completely that it looks and feels like a documentary film and certainly it has a hard, truthful ring. No punches were pulled – in fact with descriptive matter removed, it is a harsher thing than the book, by far. (L195)5
In the 1950s he praised it again in the same terms in a letter to Henry Fonda (L603). The vast majority of contemporary reviews were favorable, yet by the 1960s the film was described as either sentimental, propagandistic, or insufficiently realistic, with the notable exception of James Agee. In a 1942 essay in the Nation, he said that, even though he respected John Ford, he disliked most of The Grapes of Wrath. In a 1943 review of The Human Comedy, he wrote, about the acting style in it and Grapes, that “when there is any pretense whatever of portraying ‘real’ people . . . such actors are painfully out of place.”6
Why is there so much disagreement about what this film actually “looks and feels” like? In the first place, critics’ tastes change as their perceptions of audience change. The critics of the 1960s detested sentimental manipulation in cinema, and perhaps also expected current audiences to be more politically and socially liberal than the audience for whom Grapes was filmed. These prescriptive beliefs about the relation of art to audience made Grapes seem more dated during a 1960s or early 1970s viewing than it does today. The re-emergence of the political Right, empowered by a populace who have rekindled beliefs in hollow patriotism, in the nuclear family, fundamentalist Christianity and the righteousness of laissez faire capitalism, gives Grapes an audience today similar to the audiences of the late 1930s, when Depression-era radicalism was quickly waning. Many of our most pressing and yet ignored social and economic problems — the homelessness of whole families, the cutting of social programs, the influx of immigrants and migration of natives to areas that will not accommodate them, the devouring of small businesses by megabusinesses, and an agricultural system that once again needs new techniques and management to keep farmers and the land from disaster – echo conditions that brought about the writing and filming of Grapes. So The Grapes of Wrath, both novel and film, should be returned to the canon.
In the second place, the film of Grapes has received short shrift in academic cinema studies perhaps because critics have been unsettled by the film’s unusual conflation of sentimental fiction and documentary references. But it is this striking mix of documentary cues and powerful storytelling that has continuously drawn audiences in spite of the serious editing flaws (what happened to Noah?) and the film’s unavoidable and unfortunate diminution of Steinbeck’s documentary epic. This chapter examines the way in which the film connects art experience and life experience for the audience by manipulating the tension between social commentary, presented through documentary references, and character identification, which is established through the use of literary and cinematic conventions.
Admittedly, much is lost from Steinbeck’s work in Nunnally Johnson’s script for Ford’s film. The self-imposed Production Code of Hollywood joined with the faintly liberal politics of the filmmakers to erase the elaborate connections that Steinbeck develops between the private and the public – the lure of domination: the challenges of a woman hunted down or of an immense tract of land bought and paid for. Because of the Production Code and probably also because of their own sexual politics, the filmmakers could not include the farmyard jokes and anecdotes that in the novel so often express the inherent violence of patriarchal ownership — the desire to control land, animals, and women. They could not show the domestic violence at work in the changing relationship of Ma and Pa. They could not include Al’s tomcatting and Tom’s rebuke of him for it. They could not let us see the details of Rose of Sharon and Connie’s intimate relationship, nor her starved pregnancy, nor the enigmatic act of communal piety that ends Steinbeck’s plot. Giving her breast to a starving tenant farmer creates an analogy between the personal and the political. Rose of Sharon and the farmer have both been abandoned by hierarchical powers – husband and corporate landowner. These powers have withheld the sustenance and security owed to wife and tenant for their subservience, their willingness to work, and the expected product of their labor. If either of them realizes that the patriarchal system itself is to blame and deserves destroying, the wine of rebellion will be served round. Steinbeck’s novel suggests that the rapaciousness of human nature toward agricultural land and toward fellow beings is to blame for the socioeconomic crisis of farming in 1930s America, but the film touches on this constellation of ideas essentially not at all. In fact, the film’s disclaimer prologue blames the weather.
Nonetheless, the film is a clear primer about the hard realities of day labor. Tom’s understanding of the economics of his family’s situation comes piecemeal from Muley and Casy and others; we absorb it as he does. Despite the prologue, the text of the film clearly aims an accusing finger at the banks and land companies unwilling to help the people who have worked the companies’ lands for decades. We feel the indignant frustration of Muley and his son when they cannot find a human being to hold morally responsible for the disaster; “Well, who do we shoot?!” When the Joads find work we see them underpaid at the end of the day and overcharged at the company store. When the strike is broken, the scabs, the Joads among them, must take a fifty-percent cut in pay per box of peaches, just as Casy predicted. The Joads will now work all day for the same money that they had earned yesterday when they started work at midday. If yesterday’s supper, bought with a half-day’s earnings, left them hungry, there is no hope of eating adequately on the new lower pay. Their plan eventually to earn enough to buy a modest piece of land with a small white house seems more and more improbable. The film progresses relentlessly to the conclusion that Tom reaches under Casy’s tutelage: Striking is the only way to struggle for their rights as human beings. The film realistically points out the greatest obstacle to a strike – the breadwinner’s concern for the welfare of his own family. Granted that the film does not offer solutions to this conflict, it does show that the protagonist has become a zealot of workers’ rights and intends to go off to try to find some solutions. In this way the film is politically radical, and belies the sentimental speech that Zanuck put in Ma’s mouth as the last word of the film. Ma may think she should stay in her place, but the film’s text has developed a radical rejection of this in Tom’s character. Grapes stands near the beginning of a tradition of labor films including On the Waterfront, Blue Collar, Norma Rae, Silkwood, Matewan, and Eight Men Out.
In Novels into Film George Bluestone’s criticisms of the film as an adaptation that weakened the radical politics of the book depend mainly on the filmmakers’ omissions of radical speeches, their omission of events, and their rearrangement of the plot.7 While it is undeniable that political statements in the dialogue have been softened and that the plot rearrangement matches a more sanguine view of New Deal progress, Bluestone’s argument glosses over the power of the shocking imagery of the film. There is nothing soft or easy about the scene of eight or ten children scrambling over a refuse pile to find tin cans because “a lady’s gonna feed us!” No punches are pulled when the stranger in the first camp at which the Joads stop describes the deaths of his children – “Coroner wrote down they died of heart failure. Heart failure?! And their litde bellies all swelled out like pig bladders?!” After a woman is accidentally shot in the Hooverville by the “authorities,” the close-up of the elderly lady who holds the limp, moaning victim and says to the cop, “this woman’s bleeding to death,” is especially shocking and powerful because she is a stranger to us and yet her face and words are so moving. The razing of Muley’s house by bulldozer, the deaths of Grampa and Granma, the murderous mob that attacks the Joads’ truck, and the minders of Casy and his murderer, all contribute to the hard edges of this film. This is a world where people, good people, die of starvation, exposure, and abuse by the authorities; it is not the cleaned-up, poetically just world of Hollywood drama. The cramped and dilapidated interior of the Joads’ quarters at the Keene (Hooper, in the novel) ranch and the shanties of the Hooverville shockingly express the degrading transformation of farm tenants into harvest migrants.
Besides this shocking imagery, certain other strategies of Ford’s style, and perhaps of cinematographer Gregg Toland’s also, conspire in The Grapes of Wrath to prevent a distancing pity and to create respectful sympathy. In The Implied Reader, Wolfgang Iser contends that “the overlapping of different forms makes it possible to communicate the unknown through the known, which brings about the expansion of our experience.”8 The mixing of genres that Iser refers to is exactly what the filmmakers of Grapes attempt by juxtaposing expressionist and newsreel styles, by combining sentimental conventions of characterization with documentary cues of realistic atmosphere and open-ended plot, and by fuelling the conflict in the viewer between seeing oneself as sentimental art consumer versus implicated citizen. To say that Hollywood cinema is manipulative is an understatement, but to applaud the power and complication of that manipulation in this case may strike readers as morally or esthetically corrupt. Manipulation of a free and thinking viewer can lead to knowledge. I agree with G. B. Shaw that “All great Art and Literature is propaganda” (Preface to On the Rocks).
I wish to boast that Pygmalion has been an extremely successful play… It is so intensely and deliberately didactic, and its subject is esteemed so dry, that I delight in throwing it at the heads of the wiseacres who repeat the parrot cry that art should never be didactic. It goes to prove my contention that art should never be anything else. (Preface to Pygmalion)
Though manipulation is often pejoratively called propaganda, the opposite of didactic manipulation is in fact an unchallenging reassurance that acts as propaganda for the status quo. As novelist and filmmaker Lynne Tillman has written,
What’s called propaganda is always the philosophy and information different from that which is held by those in power. History is working with and constructing meaning(s), and power depends on the ability to define and impose meaning. And since everything we do operates out of a politic, even when a maker might think not, all work can be considered propaganda.9
Steinbeck came to trust screenwriter Nunnally Johnson not to betray the book, but he also threatened Zanuck, by putting in escrow the sum that he received for screen rights to the book so that he could sue Zanuck if the final cut watered down the facts and situations of the screenplay.10 In the end, the filmmakers do seem to have been concerned with the task of making the moviegoing public understand the nature and needs of the migrants — a task made difficult, perhaps even impossible, by the bourgeois prejudices and vested interests of that public. A combination of manipulative techniques culled from familiar genres was the solution they came to.
Ford’s film follows one of Steinbeck’s intentions in The Grapes of Wrath: The camera eye, like the narrative voice of the novel, moves back and forth between the points of view of the migrants and those who are distanced from them by economic class and by experience. Rose of Sharon’s final desperate act of work, with all its tensions of communal feeling and unnatural sexuality, accuses the reader of ignorant selfishness. By the absence of charitable middle-class people in his novel, Steinbeck silently accused America of complacency about the hundreds of thousands of migrants starving along the road. Chapter 15 contains the only bit of help to be offered the Joads by a person of a higher economic class, and yet even that scene is presented cynically, since what Mae and A1 donate, they more than regain from the truck drivers’ tips.11 The short-lived and superficial curiosity about the “Okies” expressed by Mae and the truck drivers demonstrates the great distance, ignorance, and misunderstanding between middle-class America and the dispossessed of the farming country. The self-absorbed businessman and his wife, whom Mae categorizes in the novel as “shitheels,” are even more oblivious to the migrants’ plight. Shitheels are people who treat Mae like shit – forging a longer chain of condescension and hateful distancing. They can’t put themselves in others’ shoes, like Casy can. Steinbeck extends the artistic act of imaginative identification into life experience in Tom’s final speech. The film also works with this sort of identification, moving methodically toward that speech. For the most part Ford, like Steinbeck, was making his story for an audience that not only rarely included migrants, but may even have been hostile or condescending to them. Demonstrating the strength, independence, dignity, intelligence – the humanity – of these dispossessed people was Steinbeck’s aim and that of the writers, photographers, and journalists from 1935 to the end of the Depression years, who reacted against an exploitation of tenant farmers in sentimental forms of art and journalism.
In his Documentary Expression and Thirties America,12 William Stott has given us a critical history of the documentary book genre which informed and inspired Steinbeck’s novel and Ford’s film. The sharecropper was the most prevalent subject for these sentimentally polemical books of photographs with texts. The most popular one – You Have Seen Their Faces (released November 1937) – was photographed by Margaret Bourke-White and written by Erskine Caldwell from their travels through southern states in the summer of 1936. Although there is evidence that Caldwell humbly respected the farmers while traveling among them, Stott tells us that
Caldwell himself did the tenants violence in his text, disparaged their lives and possessions — but he did so because he knew his readers would and knew that to convince them otherwise would take enormous imaginative labor on his part and theirs and undermine his polemical purpose. About farm tenancy his text made the “usual liberal complaint,” as George Elliott thinks it: “How awful this is. Aren’t you ashamed that you let fellow Americans live like this?” That was the message his audience expected; indeed, the popularity of You Have Seen Their Faces lends weight to Robert War-show’s belief that the tendency of mass culture is to eliminate the “moral content of experience, putting in its place a system of conventionalized ‘responses’.” But so conventional a text as Caldwell’s would never have sold had his book not offered something new on the sharecropper photographs. You Have Seen Their Faces was called the Unde Tom’s Cabin of tenant fanning, and Norman Cousins said it would deserve the credit “if all the talk about the share-cropper’s plight is ever translated into action,” thanks to Bourke-White.13
A self-consciousness about exploitation and propaganda arose among the serious artists and social scientists of the time. Stott tells us that some subsequent docubooks – H. C. Nixon’s Forty Acres and Steel Mules (1938), Paul Taylor and Dorothea Lange’s An American Exodus (1939), and, of course, James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) — criticized You Have Seen Their Faces directly in their texts and indirectly through their methods.14 Steinbeck had destroyed his first attempt at a novel about the migrants — “L’Affaire Lettuceberg” (B348) — although as he was writing it he described it to Elizabeth Otis, May 2, 1938, in these terms: “It is written not for intellectuals at all but for people who make up vigilance committees… It is a mean, nasty book and if I could make it nastier I would” (B375—6, this excerpt not available in A Life in Letters). He finally chose instead to express his anger at the oppressors by centering on the admirable qualities he had witnessed in the oppressed, creating a humanistic docu-epic novel instead of an authorially dominated docusatire. The public had been treated repeatedly to analytical tracts in favor of changing the tenants’ conditions, as well as to sentimentalized representations of the migrant farmers as pitiable characters drawn to create an effect. He chose instead, like Taylor and Lange and Evans and Agee, to express his impressions of how they really were from his experiences among them.
In the documentary tradition, it is difficult to walk a solid line between the audience’s sentimental expectations and the artist’s goal to bring new insight to that audience, while not exploiting the subjects of inquiry. In an era filled with pathetic views of the Depression’s victims, Ford’s film worked with audience expectations in order to sell itself but succeeded in avoiding the maudlin sentimentality that masquerades as fellow feeling. The Grapes of Wrath is a two-faced film – it looks squarely at the migrants’ reality that Steinbeck wrote about in a radical frame of mind, but it also nods at the conservative powers that be. In Theory of Film, Siegfried Kracauer points to Steinbeck’s novel as particularly cinematic in its narrative methods, and in doing so uses Grapes as an example of the political potential of film:
[Steinbeck’s novel] exposes the predicament of the migratory farm workers, thus revealing and stigmatizing abuses in our society.
This… falls into line with the peculiar potentialities of film. In recording and exploring physical reality, the cinema virtually challenges us to confront that reality with the notions we commonly entertain about it — notions which keep us from perceiving it. Perhaps part of the medium’s significance lies in its revealing powers.15
Ford’s Grapes does aim to reveal facts that will change notions held by those who would deny the humanity of the migrants. What Kracauer neglects in making this sanguine assertion, however, is that the concealing power of cinema is often as strong as its ”revealing power,” because cinema, even documentary cinema, is a creation of a physical reality, not an unmediated recording of reality. Creation implies an author who shapes and omits, frames and edits “facts.” Certainly, much factual information from the novel that might radicalize the viewer is omitted from the film, yet the power of story works well in Ford’s film to move the viewer. The camera negotiates with the audience to gain sympathy, but not pity, for the Joads and their kin of the road. The film of Grapes tries to create a radical continuum between identification with characters in art and active sympathy with the Other in life.
In his biography of John Ford, Tag Gallagher points out that “We are led to identify with ‘Our People’ (as Ma Joad puts it) and to regard the rest of the world as alien. Such a process of identification/alienation is essentially revolutionary.”16 But, without developing this idea, he goes on to agree with other critics that the “thrust of the film’s ‘politics’ of empathy and alienation… is deflected in plot development.”17 When we examine the development of identification in the film closely, we discover a tension between alien views and involved views, one that makes the migrants a powerful source of political meaning that overrides easy sentimentality.
At the beginning of the film, Tom Joad is presented as a mysterious and threatening character. The filmmakers play on the audience’s fear of convicts and vagrants. The film begins with alien views of Tom and works towards identification with him very slowly: Until the sequence with Muley, there are no close-ups that ask us to give him special sympathetic attention. The film opens with an alien view of Tom in long shot, coming up to a crossroads eatery, a black form except for his white cap, the shadow of which obscures his face. He silently waits and watches by a truck as the truck driver dallies with a waitress. As Tom leans on the truck in the foreground, the truck driver appears as a much smaller form in between the truck and Tom’s body – in the crook of his arm. This shot helps to make Tom seem threatening, as does his verbal manipulation of the driver in the next shot. Within the truck Tom and the driver are still shown in two-shots, neither looking at the other, while the driver pries into Tom’s past. When Tom gets fed up with the driver’s nosiness – “Gotta trade?” – Tom turns toward the driver, slowly, the new stiff cap in profile becoming a threatening beak. Tom challenges the driver to ask what he really wants to know. “Why don’t you get at it, buddy?” Soon after, still in the same medium two-shot, Tom says that his road is coming up. As Tom gets out of the truck and finishes his hostile conversation with the driver, Ford presents this sequence in alternating point-of-view shots that begin to create the tension of alien versus involved views. First, Ford distances the audience for a moment with an extreme long shot of Tom leaving the truck: a low-angle shot that shows the dry and chunky field dirt by the roadside. In this distancing shot Tom is a tiny anonymous hitchhiker being dropped off. Then we get a shot from behind Tom’s back as he holds the door open and says to the frightened driver: “You’re about to bust a gut to know what I done, ain’t ya?” Then we get reverse point-of-view shots. From Tom’s point of view there follows a medium close-up of the driver’s frightened face; he doesn’t answer. Then a shot of what the driver sees: Tom’s threatening, joking face in a medium shot that includes the black arch of the door frame: “Well, I ain’t a guy to let you down (pause) it was home-a-side,” says Tom, punctuating his declaration with a slam of the cab door. Then we get a shot from Tom’s point of view of the frightened driver in the cab as the track pulls away. These point-of-view shots set up the tension in the viewer between a desire to identify with this fictional sharecropper and a recognition that in his own life the viewer, on the opposite side of the socioeconomic fence, would find Tom frightening.
Besides the extreme long shot of Tom as an anonymous hitchhiker that interrupts the intense dialogue with the truck driver, there are other alien views of the Joads that contrast with involved views of them as protagonists. After the viewer has gotten to know the whole family and has been involved in their excited reunion with Tom, these involved views are interrupted by the arrival of the superintendent’s car, seen against the fields and distant low hills, in a long shot from the family’s point of view, as the superintendent honks and yells, “Joad! John Joad!” The next shot is striking in its abrupt distancing of the viewer from the Joads. It is an alien view of the family in the yard walking toward the car – a disorganized, uncomposed long shot in which they look bedraggled and forlorn. From the point of view of the arriving car, this long shot reminds the viewer of his alienation in real life from people in circumstances like the Joads. The shot seems candid or documentary in style for a moment, but as the Joads walk toward the car, they form a tableau of family in front of the house and the track; thus, this alien view ends with a reminder of our recent involved views of them.
A similar interruption of narrative identification occurs in the earlier sequence in the dark, empty Joad house. The viewer’s sympathetic involvement with Tom and Muley is continuous in the sequence except for an interrupting alien view that implicates the viewer. To begin Muley’s memory sequence – “A man come one day…” – Ford chose not Muley’s point of view, but the view from the back seat of the superintendent’s car. This throws the viewer into an alien view of Muley’s family for a moment. The reverse point-of-view shot from where Muley stands listening shows us the superintendent through the car’s windshield. So, again, reverse point-of-view shots set up a tension in viewers between distance and sympathy – between our condition in life experience and our condition in art experience.
The camera eye does not look at Tom in close-up until we are far into the fdm. The long sequence of meeting Casy and philosophizing with him is shot in medium, three-quarter, and full shots. Ford saved the first close-up to make it an emphatically involved view. After Tom has looked around in his parents’ house by candlelight, picking up belongings, describing them for Casy, we see Tom in a slightly low-angle medium shot, alone in the frame, his hand and face lit by the candle. Ford, who rarely uses moving camera at all in this film, suddenly moves the camera in and tilts up to create a low-angle close-up of Tom’s half-lit face as he asks, “Reckon they’re dead?” This emotional camera movement and resulting close-up begins the involved views of Tom and Muley that take place in the dark Joad house.
The first part of Muley’s memory sequence ends in a dissolve from Muley’s dark figure squatting in the blowing white dust to an extreme close-up of Tom’s concerned face surrounded by pitch black. The dissolve is a visual representation of character identification – Tom seems to take Muley’s memory inside him. Tom, the outsider like us, has become deeply involved with another’s story; he feels the trouble as if it could happen to him. Tom’s willingness to put himself in Muley’s shoes provides a standard against which the audience is expected to measure the responses of the people encountered by the Joads in their migration. Ford begins the truck-stop sequence from inside the diner before Fa, Ruthie, and Winfield come in, so that we can reflect on how we might feel about Pa if he were a stranger to us as he is to Mae and the drivers. The esthetic existence of these Joad characters is repeatedly linked by these distancing views to the political existence of their social group in relation to the social group that most viewers belong to. By the time Ford allows the service-station attendants to voice the worst that might be lurking in the viewers’ minds, the audience has become so involved with the Joad family that the commentary of the grease monkeys drives us still closer to the Joads.
Vivian C. Sobchack, among others, has argued that Ford meant to abstract the Joads from their sociopolitical milieu in order to make a universal story of a family struggling against adversity: The film “involved the contemporaneous viewer primarily on the level of sentiment, because its transcendent vision of the Joads as an archetypal family freed the viewer from the responsibility for specific social action.”18 Admittedly, Ford was no social activist or satirist, yet one must ignore major portions of the film in order to argue that the film is more about family than it is about the migrants’ plight and their labor struggles. If the film is merely about a universalized struggling family, then why did Ford include the striking dialogue of the gas-station attendants that makes the viewer squirm and reflect on his or her own prejudices against people like the Joads? Well into the film, long after we have accepted the Joads as protagonists, the following dialogue reminds us that these protagonists are part of a large group, dispossessed not only of homes and jobs, but also of reputation. This treatment is especially undeserved as they enter the desert, crossed heroically by so many pioneers. The immaculate white suits of the glib, gum-chewing station attendants contrast remarkably with their nasty and ignorant commentary.
“Holy Moses. What a hard-looking outfit!”
“All them Okies is hard looking.”
“I’d hate to hit that desert in a jalopy like that.”
“You and me got sense. Them Okies got no sense and no feelings.
They ain’t human. A human couldn’t live the way they do. A
human being couldn’t stand to be so miserable.”
“Just don’t know any better, I guess.”
Much of the film works to show the idiocy of these statements.
The drama of alienated or involved looking is rendered intensely in the sequence in which the Joads enter the Hooverville, because of the triangulation between the Joads, the campers, and the moviegoer looking. Ford and Toland set up the only extended moving-camera shot in the whole film for this documentary-style view of a fictional Hooverville and its inhabitants. The camera views the camp from the Joads’ truck as the Joads inspect it. The moving-camera shot seems almost like newsreel footage; it is shot at an odd angle, slightly askew. The content of this shot is that of Farm Security Administration documentary photography: Raggedly dressed people, slow, tired, wary, some quite thin, pass before the truck. But they do something they cannot often do in FSA documentary photos: They stop to stare inquisitively at the Joads. The voyeurism is made uncomfortably reciprocal. The details are eloquent: black-smoking, rigged-up stove pipes; huts, shacks, and tents with varying measures taken to create privacy; a jalopy for sale; a man repairing a tire; a woman carrying junk wood for her fire; a woman washing clothes in a bucket; a woman protectively herding children out of the way of the truck. When the truck stops, we get a series of alternating shots of the observing Joads in the truck cab and of the people they are looking at. Six shots go by before a word is uttered. A very realistic shot of a toothless, emaciated couple in front of a hut is followed by a shot of Pa, John, Connie, and Casy on the back of the truck — a shot in which the Joads don’t look much better off, yet Tom will break the silence two shots later by saying to Ma, “Sure do look none too prosperous. Should we go somewheres else?” The Joads are having an alien view of “Okies,” just as the viewer has been implicated in having alien views of the Joads. As Tom utters these words, trying futilely to see the campers as different/separate from his own family, the filmmakers have made visible in the windshield a reflection of a Hooverville woman looking at them, in order to assert the reciprocity/mutuality of looking in order to separate or identify.
The radical connection between looking at others and feeling for them is again powerfully expressed in the scene when Ma doesn’t have enough stew for both her family and the camp children milling about the Joad tent. Uncle John, staring at the children, feigns a belly ache — “I ain’t hongry” — and when Tom yells at him to get in the tent and eat, John says under his breath, “It wouldn’t be no use: I’d still see them in the tent.” His absorption of this visual experience, an involved view, is meant to mimic or prescribe the viewer’s relation to the Joads and to the campers through looking.
By mixing expressionist narrative techniques with documentary cues and content, Ford keeps fiction and reality in constructive connection. The dark, expressionist sequences assert the inner life of the characters, balancing the distancing effects inherent in the external, opaque views of documentary style. The authors of the docubooks in the mid-1930s felt that the audience needed captions giving voices to the pictured people. The presentation of inner life through quotation – whether invented by Caldwell for Bourke-White’s You Have Seen Their Faces or recorded at the moment of the photo taking and carefully transcribed by Taylor and Lange for An American Exodus – was considered an important addition to the possibly alienating surface of the person photographed. Through artistic conventions of narrative. Ford’s film presents the inner lives of migrant characters so that the viewer, however prejudiced against the migrants’ appearance, must admit having thoughts, concerns, and feelings in common with them.
Muley’s memory sequence presents the blending of contrasting expressionist and documentary approaches. Tom Collins, the camp director of the actual Weedpatch camp and fellow traveler with Steinbeck among the migrants, received $15,000 to be technical advisor to the filmmakers. The realism of the documentary details in the film are probably owing in great part to his contributions, as well as to Pare Lorentz’s docufilms. The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River. Ford uses darkness in his expressionist sequences to evoke the contents of the mind – Tom walks around in his parents’ house remembering. Muley begins telling his three-part story in the dark, but the story is brightly sunlit and in high contrast. Since high-contrast shooting was not common in Hollywood style in the 1930s, the viewer might easily associate that high-contrast look with the documentary photographs so common in books and photomagazines of the time. Muley knows about the economic facts of the evictions, so his speech also combines the emotional and the documentary. Muley is not an object acted on by document collectors, but a subject speaking, documenting his own story. The power of the sequence lies in the viewer seeing Muley from inside and outside at once. The only approach more powerful and true would be to have a migrant write and direct his own documentary narrative.
Ford alludes to the complex interior life of Ma Joad in the scene when she sorts her valued possessions. Sobchack asserts that these dramatic scenes framed by darkness abstract the characters from the socioeconomic milieu.19 On the contrary, Ma is presented as both an expressionist character and a documentary personage. The objects that she examines, which we see in close-up, cue documentary associations because of their particularity: news clipping, postcard. World’s Fair souvenir. This real woman lives in an historical moment. Yet the viewer becomes curious about the emotional meaning of these objects — we are alerted to the fact that Ma has an unelaborated personal history. The shot of her sad face reflected in the clouded mirror while she holds earrings to her earlobes is part of the universalized tradition handed down from German expressionism (through F. W. Murnau in Ford’s case). This intensely psychological moment expresses Ma’s inner life — her sense of beauty desired, time lost, hopes dashed, and identity embattled. This expression of inner life helps the viewer to understand and identify with Ma, and it asserts the human dignity and emotional complexity of the migrants for audiences familiar with the expressionist tradition, but unfamiliar – perhaps insistently so – with transients except as “eyesores” along the roadside. Tom’s mental life is also expressed in dark expressionist sequences – in the first camp stop on the road, in the truck with Ma when the mob approaches them, with Casy talking strike strategy in the tent, and with Ma at the dance floor just before he leaves the family. By juxtaposing nightmarish expressionist scenes of emotional and intellectual content and dazzlingly daylit documentary-style views of the same characters. Ford and Toland pull off a double-pronged manipulation of the audience that steers the viewer away from the easy reassurance of sentimental Hollywood narrative.
Even the casting of Henry Fonda as Tom Joad also develops the tension between traditional story and documentary. Although Fonda is a matinee idol of sorts, he can make himself look tough and even frightening. His head viewed from certain angles can work against his Hollywood good looks. He knows how to use his jaw muscles and his teeth to appear threatening and alienating in close-ups that are usually intended to make a Hollywood star attractive. When Ma first sees Tom out in the yard at Uncle John’s, for example, the close-up of Fonda, as he greets her with “Ma,” is all teeth and hard pale eyes. It is not the sentimental scene one might expect. His beak of a cap and his short-tempered speech patterns also help undercut his star quality. Fonda’s casting history included both American patriots and criminals – not only the title role in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and a pioneer in Drums along the Mohawk (1939), but also Frank James in Jesse James (1939) and an ex-con in You Only Live Once (1937). Casting Fonda as Tom helped identify the migrants – those frightening strangers – as fellow Americans. Reintegrating the migrants into the history of the American Dream seems to be an aim of Grapes as both novel and film, although the film is less willing than the novel to question the efficacy of the dream.
Biographer Jackson J. Benson contends that Steinbeck was “essentially” a “New Deal Democrat” (B371), yet the novel impugns capitalist farming in America more severely than a Roosevelt reformist would. In the novel, Steinbeck takes his attack on greedy ownership of land back through American history. While strong on the rights of labor, the film avoids attacks on ownership and only indirectly refers to the agricultural problems of depleted topsoil, mechanization of cultivation, and monocrop culture. The film illustrates the carrot of the American Dream of rags to riches while the novel shows it to be wrong-headed — sour grapes for the few who achieve it and ungraspable for the many. In the film Ford and Johnson added an Oklahoma native who came out two years earlier and made it in California – played by Ward Bond. He greets the Joads at their arrival in their first California town and then because of curfew laws he must advise them to move along out to the Hooverville. The Ward Bond character expresses the ambivalence of the “self-made” American toward the people he rose up from. Zanuck himself had come to Hollywood a poor boy from the edge of the Dust Bowl in the Midwest and had risen to be a top producer at Warner Brothers by the time talkies arrived. It seems to be a perverse sort of honesty about their own success that makes these filmmakers put a more sanguine face on the possibilities of making it in America. The filmmakers also present the Joads as Americans with a different past than Steinbeck gave them. Two of Ma’s trinkets in the film have been added – the postcard of the Statue of Liberty and the porcelain dog from the St. Louis Exposition. These trinkets add a connection to a broader part of America. Ma’s relatives or friends had time and money to travel. Or they moved to places like New York City and started new lives. Steinbeck had presented the Joads as insulated and naive in their barely populated farming county. The filmmakers, on the other hand, want to identify the Joads with the yearnings of the middle-class for upward mobility and traveling adventure. The Statue of Liberty on a postcard would speak subtly to every immigrant in the audience — the Joads are like you are or like you were when you first got here. John Ford himself may have chosen to add the postcard to allude to his own sort of background as an Irish immigrant who became a successful American. It would have been a kind of lie for Zanuck and Ford to present the American Dream as inoperable because they lived it, and yet, of course, for every Zanuck and Ford who made it, thousands failed to achieve even modest versions of their dreams. The filmmakers knew this and their political ambivalence about haves and have-nots shows at every turn.
The character that Ward Bond plays expresses this ambivalence most succinctly when he turns businesslike after greeting the Joads as fellow “Okies”:
What I gotta tell you is this: Don’t park in town tonight. Just go right on out to that camp. If I catch you in town after dark, gotta lock you up.
But what are we gonna do?
Well, Pop, that just ain’t up to me. I don’t mind telling you the guy they oughta lock up is the guy who sent them things [the handbills advertising work] out.
It seems fair to guess that if the migrants had been Hispanic – as they are today (under similar housing conditions) — we wouldn’t have heard about it nearly so loudly nor in epic form. Steinbeck and the filmmakers were concerned about these American migrants precisely because they were descendants of the yeoman farmers of Anglo-Saxon stock who had “tamed” both the Plains and the Native Americans who “roamed” there. That blacks from the tenant-farmed South were traveling Route 80 to the far West and were involved in farm workers’ strikes (see An American Exodus and B303-4) mattered not for this story. That women struggled side by side with men not only in the fields and orchards but in the labor movements as well (for example, Caroline Decker, see B302ff and the excerpt from Steinbeck’s letter quoted on B316, but omitted from A Life in Letters) mattered not. Steinbeck and the filmmakers who used his novel presented a traditional extended family of yeoman farmers, who, it is implied, deserved better than they received in part because of their genetic/cultural history rather than because they were human beings, every one of whom deserves food, shelter, and the chance to work to keep supplying the other two for his or her dependents. The filmmakers’ implication, though unfortunately quite racist and culturally chauvinist, allowed for some richly seductive images of an imagined past, attractive probably even to the braceros and later the Chicanos who replaced the “Okies” in the fields – organizers for Cesar Chavez used Steinbeck’s novel as part of their consciousness-raising campaign in the 1960s, aimed at American consumers (B423).
Ford’s talent for iconographic tableaux is evident in many shots of farm environments and family circles. The first scene of the Joads is presented as a tableau of the farm kitchen table in which the extended family forms a circle of tow-headed or gray-thatched faces. Muley’s family forms a tableau as his house is bulldozed. When the superintendent arrives to warn Uncle John to “be off by morning,” the family arranges itself in an oval-to-circular composition. When Tom and Casy walk to Uncle John’s, we are treated to a gorgeous sunrise silhouette of fences, farmhouse, and windmill. At the end of Muley’s tale as he squats in the dust, he suddenly stops crying and looks off to the fields, creating the perfect icon representing the farmer waiting on and watching weather and crops. Ford is adept at myth making about the history of the yeoman farmer, omitting the equal, if not more influential, contributions to the creation of America by the unfree laborers at the bottom and the omnipresent and omnipotent corporations at the top.
While it is clearly documented that Steinbeck wrote purposely to get governmental help for the migrants, to reveal and thereby to end the clandestine abuse of them by the Associated Farmers and vigilantes, and to dear away dehumanizing impressions of the migrants’ characters, it is not clear that anyone among the filmmakers, except perhaps Johnson, whom Steinbeck trusted (L186), was deeply committed to improving the migrants’ conditions. What solutions did they propose in their version of The Grapes of Wrath? Perhaps they thought that reaching as many viewers as possible, by offering a film less “offensive” than the book, would serve the migrants by bringing attention to them that Congress could not ignore. The building of more government camps was at a standstill – only two had been completed while thousands of migrants continued to arrive in California. There is also a curious addition to the film that is not in the book: The Wheat Patch camp visually mimics a Native American village that we pass through when the Joads are on the road in Arizona. Perhaps Ford and Johnson wished to make an oblique reference to the dangerous possibility of genocide of the migrants, or perhaps this allusion to the peaceful village points to a nostalgic fantasy — a wish to start America over again. Today such a solution seems absurd, but in fact Roosevelt himself had the pipe dream of settling the migrants on arable land in the Columbia River Basin. In any case, the war changed the farm workers’ population and their problems within the next two years, so we can never know what changes the film or the novel might have fostered.
The filmmakers’ political commitment has often been measured against Steinbeck’s by comparing the endings of the film and the book. Nunnally Johnson moved the govemment-camp episode (389flf), which is between the Hooverville and Hooper ranch (called Keene ranch in the film) episodes in the novel, to the end of the screenplay. He omitted the cotton-picking episode, the boxcar flood, and the final episode of the novel entirely. He has Tom leave the government camp instead of the boxcar camp. Tom’s final speech in the novel (570-2) is condensed and delivered to Ma on the deserted dance floor rather than in the vine-covered cave where Tom hides in the novel. Then Johnson lifted two of Ma’s speeches from the novel and had her say them both to Pa in the truck cab as they leave the government camp in search of work. One part of Ma’s speech in the film was actually spoken to Tom in the novel in order to calm his murderous intent toward deputies and vigilantes at the end of the Hooverville episode: “We’re the people that live… Rich fellas come up and they die… But, Tom, we keep a-comin'” (383). The rest of Ma’s speech in the film was spoken in the novel to Pa and Uncle John to urge them to just survive from day to day: “Woman can change better’n a man… (577-8). Reportedly, Ford ended the film without this last speech from Ma but then Zanuck shot it and added it after the final cut, with Ford’s approval.20 Since the tone and meaning of Steinbeck’s ending is itself hotly debated still, it is rather difficult to compare the endings of book and film; nevertheless, George Bluestone and Warren French came up with opposing views about the comparison. Bluestone, who sees the novel’s structure as a parabola whose highest point is the govemment-camp episode, asserts that the film’s
new order changes the parabolic structure to a straight line that continually ascends… the film’s conclusion has the advantage of seeming structurally more acceptable. Its “new logic” affords a continuous movement which, like a projectile, carries everything before it. The movie solution satisfies expectations which are there in the novel to begin with and which the novel’s ending does not satisfactorily fulfill… If the film’s conclusion withdraws from a leftist commitment, it is because the novel does so also. If the film vaporizes radical sociology, the novel withdraws from it, too, with Rose of Sharon’s final act. The familial optimism of the one and the biological pessimism of the other are two sides of the same coin.21
Warren French, on the other hand, who has argued that the theme of the novel is “the education of the heart,”22 asserts that in the film
the emphasis is not on change, but survival. Actually in the film the only thing that the Joads have learned from their experiences is that they’ve just got to accept the beating they’re taking and keep on plugging along… The final point of the movie is exactly the opposite of the novel’s. It is an insistence that survival depends not upon changing and dynamically accommodating one’s self to new challenges, but rather upon passively accepting one’s lot and keeping plodding along.23
In their attempts to coordinate the novel and the film these arguments oversimplify both works. Bluestone seems to miss the fact that Steinbeck’s ending is multifold, complexly tying up the various levels of the novel — Rose of Sharon’s act can be interpreted in many, many ways. On the other side, French seems to deny that Tom, the major character of the film, has changed. There is a lesson here perhaps about the dangers of novel-into-film criticism: One often can gain more by immersing oneself totally in one work at a time. The progress of the film, apart from any knowledge of the novel, leads to Tom’s speech, not to Ma’s. The complex manipulative techniques of the film that I have described lead the viewer to accept Tom’s and Casy’s views of what the realities are and what the appropriate responses in the future must be.
In effective artful propaganda the ending is of great importance, because traditional closure can allow the audience to resolve and put aside the conflicts presented. The resolution of satisfying narrative is counterproductive to the intention to connect art and action in life. Many labor films have problematized endings as a result; for example, films with downbeat endings, like On the Waterfront. Blue Collar, and Matewan might be attacked for having descriptive rather than inspirationally prescriptive endings. In the other direction, the reassuring success of the unionizing in the inordinately upbeat Norma Rae ignores the important aftermath of the union’s arrival: The company moved its plant away shortly afterwards, leaving these newly unionized workers unemployed. Simplistic storytelling conventions can work against developing political commitment in the viewer; only a complex ending will serve artful propaganda well. Certainly, this is one of the reasons that Steinbeck ended his epic abruptly with an enigmatic act that would keep the reader studying the world of the text. As he wrote to Covici, January 16, 1939, “I am not writing a satisfying story. I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags, I don’t want him satisfied” (L178).
Unfortunately for the film, Zanuck intended to deaden political outrage by adding Ma’s final speech, an ending which many critics have pointed to as an incredibly inappropriate attempt to provide satisfying closure of the story and to undercut the radical messages of the film to that point. Yet, in spite of Zanuck’s meddling, the film is quite open ended and radical, the ending more complex than he intended. The film actually has two endings since the sequence of Tom’s leaving feels like the real ending. Tom’s speech and mission look forward, bringing up new questions unanswered by Ma’s platitudes. Ma is still wringing her hands and shaking her head while the family packs up to leave the government camp because no work is available in the vicinity. Before her supposedly reassuring speech, we see a long line of cars moving through an orchard that they dare not stop in or pick from, signaling the ongoing search for security in this Californian mirage of an Eden. Her platitudes about “the people” are no help against the lack of work, shelter, and food. Furthermore, Ma’s speech can be read as continuous with her earlier asserting of necessary fictions to bolster the morale of the family. She is the uncomplaining maintainer of status quo in the home – in other words, the ultimate mother figure who not only attends to physical needs, but also works overtime to prevent the shattering of fragile psyches around her. The final speech of the film does not offer much closure; in fact, it is followed by one more shot of trucks moving along a highway backed by mountains and a sinking or rising sun. Since we can’t know from the previous shots whether this is sunrise or sunset, the tension of hope and despair that has been presented throughout the film by sunlight and black night remains unresolved at the close of the film. In spite of Zanuck’s attempt at closure, the ending leaves the tensions intact – of family survival pitted against labor organizing methods and of haves against have-nots. The film may not be able to muster the viewer’s political energies (what artwork can move the unready?), but it does not allow the attentive viewer to shut off the connection between troubled protagonists and real-life struggling have-nots.
In his chapter about the migrants’ search for pleasure, Steinbeck reminds the reader of two opposing audience expectations of Hollywood films. As a movie-going migrant tells another the plot of a screwball comedy, the other – more serious minded – interrupts him, saying, “I was to a show oncet that was me, an’ more ‘n me; an’ my life, an’ more’n my life, so ever’thing was bigger.” The escapist moviegoer replies, “Well, I git enough sorrow. I like to git away from it.” And the serious migrant replies, “Sure – if you can believe it” (446). The last sequence of Ford’s film certainly caters to the escapist moviegoer, but the rest of the film’s affective progress-its artful propaganda – is aimed at expressing the truth to the serious viewer, willing to make the leap into the Other’s place and maintain the feel of that place even after the lights go up.
1. Pauline Kael, I Lost It at the Movies (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1965), p. 289.
2. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema, Directors and Directions 1929-1966 (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1968), p. 45.
3. Life, (January 22, 1940): 29.
4. The New York Times, (January 25, 1940): 17.
5. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, Elaine A. Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten, eds. (New York: Viking, 1975), p. 195. Subsequent references to this text will be indicated parenthetically, with L.
6. James Agee, Agee on Film (New York: Grosset and Dunlop, 1969), Vol. I, pp. 23, 31.
7. George Bluestone, Novels into Film (1957; rpt. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973), pp. 147-69.
8. Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader (1974; rpt. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1978), p. 59.
9. Lynne Tillman, “A Film with History,” The Independent (January/February, 1987): 12-13.
10. Jackson J. Benson, The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer (New York: Viking, 1984), pp. 408—11. Subsequent references to this text will appear parenthetically, with B.
11. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Peter Lisca, ed. (New York: Viking, 1972), p. 220. Subsequent references to this text will appear parenthetically.
12. William Stott, Documentary Expression and Thirties America (1973; new edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 211 ff.
13. Ibid., p. 220.
14. Ibid., pp. 223-5.
15. Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption cf Physical Reality (1960; rpt. London: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 240—1.
16. Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and His Films (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986), p. 177.
17. Ibid., p. 178.
18. Vivian C. Sobchack, “The Grapes of Wrath (1940): Thematic Emphasis through Visual Style,” American Quarterly 31 (Winter, 1979): 612.
19. Ibid., pp. 609-11.
20. Gallagher, John Ford, p. 179.
21. Bluestone, Novels into Film, pp. 166-8, passim.
22. Warren French, John Steinbeck (New York: Twayne, 1961), pp. 97-108.
23. Warren French, Filmguide to The Grapes of Wrath (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1973), pp. 25-6.
in New Essays on The Grapes of Wrath (edited by David Wyatt), pp. 101-125