The Grapes of Wrath: Fox Studio Classics
The Grapes of Wrath, John Ford's moving 1940 adaptation of John Steinbeck's gut-punching and humane American epic, was a touchstone for generations of moviegoers for whom the Great Depression left deep and irreversible scars. Like the Pulitzer-winning novel, in its day Ford's odyssey of displaced Dust Bowl "Okies" was hailed as a triumph of poetic realism. Screenwriter Nunnally Johnson softened Steinbeck's relentless bleakness but not his ear for language or his ferocious compassion. Johnson, Ford, the superb ensemble cast, and cinematographer Gregg Toland (through beautiful black-and-white imagery) captured the tone and spirit of their source while providing some of the most virtuosic work of their careers.
Henry Fonda is Tom Joad, who after four years in the state penitentiary (for manslaughter) returns to his Oklahoma farm home and finds that Everything Has Changed. The farm has been wiped out, physically and financially, by forces he cannot comprehend. Fonda inhabits Tom with barely restrained anger, and his transformation into a man representing the steel-spined dignity of "the people" is hard won through scenes that are machine-tooled to be affecting but remain no less effective because of it. John Carradine's Casy, the fallen preacher on a spiritual quest to "explore the wilderness" of human earthiness, mentors Tom after doomed Muley (John Qualen) reveals that the Joad family was forced to join the thousands of migrants leaving their devastated lands on a brutal trek toward the uncertain promised land of California. The undauntable matriarch, Ma Joad (Oscar-winner Jane Darwell), fights to hold the family together in spite of privation, violence, and simple human frailty they encounter along the way. "Can't wipe us out. Can't lick us. We'll go on forever," she says.
Occasionally the film tries too hard to win us over by its righteousness, but this intimate tale of the heroic struggling poor speaks with eloquence on the strength and adaptability of family unity in the grip of hard times, injustice, and oppressive, faceless entities that uproot families and command destruction from afar for the sake of "a piece of paper." Ford was a confluence of contradictions, both the hard-bitten conservative and the natural romantic whom critic Andrew Sarris called "the supreme American film poet of homecomings and leave-takings, of last stands and lost causes." The Grapes of Wrath, an emotional uppercut extolling each of those descriptors, earned Ford the Oscar. And it proves that a Hollywood film can be both socially engaged and a work of lasting, entertaining art.
* * *
This single two-sided disc, part of Fox's Studio Classics imprint, delivers a sterling print that restores Toland's photography to its deep, documentary-like beauty. Some minor flaws include a slight flicker that pervades the film, but by any reasonable measure this is a gorgeous new edition. The audio comes in clean, clear options of DD 2.0 stereo and the original monaural. The stereo is not well mixed, making the mono track the better choice.
The favorite extra will surely be the spirited commentary track by Ford scholar Joseph McBride and Steinbeck expert Susan Shillinglaw. Their thorough backgrounder covers the film and everyone involved, as well as the sometimes bitter controversies surrounding the novel's content and themes. Both are well-spoken and engaging, making for an insightful track that offers more than just bullet-point factoids.
Also here are the film's U.K. Prologue (available as a branching option, these text cards gave foreign audiences and now modern Americans some context), A&E Biography's well-done hour on mogul producer Darryl F. Zanuck, three drought reports from 1934 as reported by Movietone News (plus outtakes from them), and a period report showing FDR "Lauding Motion Pictures" at the Academy Awards banquet with Jane Darwell receiving her gold statue. The theatrical trailer, a Still Gallery, a Restoration Comparison, and trailers for other Fox Studio Classics fill out the supplements list. Keep-case.