The Grapes of Wrath: The Timeless Vision of Steinbeck, Zanuck, Ford and Toland


The Grapes of Wrath Movie Poster

Over half a century after The Grapes of Wrath was released, we tend to forget the minor miracle that conservative prewar Hollywood produced a powerful and radical film that according to author John Steinbeck was “harsher” than his Nobel Prize winning book, considered by many to be one of the most radical social documents of its day. Even to this day, biographer Joseph McBride, reminds us it remains “Hollywood’s strongest indictment of Depression era socioeconomics.”

The Grapes of Wrath was almost universally declared an instant masterpiece after its release in 1940. But post war prosperity soon made the story about the struggles of Depression era farmers seem dated. The current economic crisis, however, has given the film new life and a new generation of viewers thanks to recent stage productions. Youtube is now loaded with clips from the film. Biographer Scott Eyman writes “Today, sixty years after it was made, The Grapes of Wrath retains nearly all of its concentrated humanist power.”

John Steinbeck chose a line from a biblical image in Julia Ward Howe’s great civil war anthem The Battle Hymn of the Republic for the title of his semi-documentary novel about the plight of displaced “Okies” migrating from Texas, Arkansas and Missouri as well as Oklahoma. This great exodus had several natural causes; drought, soil erosion, dust storms but Steinbeck focused on the thousands of sharecroppers and tenant farmers forced from their land by large landowners. The novel was a smash best seller and national sensation; and was quickly purchased for the then staggering sum of $100,000 by the brilliant 20th Century Fox chief Darryl Zanuck. He tried to get MGM to loan their top director Clarence Brown, but when he was not available, approached John Ford again who was still shooting Drums Along the Mohawk; He was somewhat hesitant at first but after reading the script agreed. He was drawn to Steinbeck’s story because of its similarity to his family’s plight in Ireland during the Great Famine as they were forced to emigrate to America by the land barons. Ford recalled “The whole thing appealed to me—being about simple people—and the story was similar to the famine in Ireland, when they threw the people off the land and left them wandering on the roads to starve.”

The Grapes of Wrath is the story of the journey of hero Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), responsible for two killings; One takes place in a bar where Tom turns a drunk’s head “plum to squash” with a shovel after being attacked with a knife. He is paroled after four years and returns to his family farm in Oklahoma, to discover the Joads have been “tractored off the land” and become part of a large migratory caravan headed for California. He is attacked again later as hired thugs and deputies try to break up a strike with guns and clubs, this time by a “tin badge” with a club. He grabs the club, and kills him. At the end of the film Fonda says goodbye to his mother (played by Jane Darwell); with one of the most powerful moments in cinema; he declares “I’ll be around in the dark, I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look—wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Whenever there’s a cop beating up a guy—I’ll be there. I’ll be there in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be there in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry, and they know supper’s ready, and when people are eatin’ the stuff they raised, and livin’ in the houses they built—I’ll be there too.”

Originally, Steinbeck was highly skeptical of Fox’s ability to accurately deal with his novel; so he included the promise in the contract that the film would “fairly and reasonably retain the main action and social intent of said literary property.” Zanuck told him he had even taken the highly unusual precaution of hiring a private investigator to corroborate the charges made in the book and reported that” conditions are much worse than you reported.” Zanuck recalled at the first story conference Steinbeck “was highly suspicious” when he found out that Chase Manhattan Bank actually had controlling interest in Fox and feared that Zanuck planned to take “the social significance out of the story and he never would have sold the book to me if he had realized this company was actually controlled by big banking interests.” Zanuck assured the author that he was “willing to take any legitimate or justified gamble” with the book.

Zanuck also came up with the wonderful idea of hiring the great painter of the plains, Tomas Hart Benton to create illustrations for the film ads. The artist’s distinctively styled heroic figures set Grapes apart as well as created a sense of anticipation as to the look of the movie.

According to McBride, scriptwriter Nunnally Johnson “toned down the earthiness of the novel for censorship reasons, eliminated most of Steinbeck’s ruminations on the need for an organized revolt of the underclass, and somewhat softened the author’s generally despairing view of the American socioeconomic system.” Johnson cut out much of the author’s “preachy” and repetitive narrative giving the script a more direct simplicity. Despite all of all the revisions, Steinbeck was delighted with the final film, stating in 1939 that “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 are pulled—in fact, with descriptive matter removed, it is a harsher thing than the book, by far. It seems unbelievable but it is true.” Almost twenty years later, in 1958, after screening a 16mm copy, he commented to Henry Fonda “it’s a wonderful picture, just as good as it ever was. It doesn’t look dated.”

Ford’s powerful imagery more than compensated for much of Johnson’s omissions. The director’s vision was greatly enhanced when Zanuck gave him cinematographer Gregg Toland. The Grapes of Wrath marks the first of several collaborations between perhaps the last two greatest creative geniuses in Black and White cinema. Toland was on loan from Samuel Goldwyn after achieving great results on Wuthering Heights; he would later work with Ford on the beautifully photographed The Long Voyage Home and the documentary December 7. But perhaps his most famous credit was the one he shared with “boy wonder” Orson Welles for the extraordinary photography in the masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941).

Toland is famous for his “deep focus” technique. This revolutionary effect allows distant objects to stay in sharp focus, thus giving the illusion of three-dimensionality to the flat screen. The secret of Toland’s innovation was the new, more sensitive film stock; and the addition of more intense lighting allowing him to close down the camera lens to its smallest aperture, to gain a much larger depth of field. Toland was always interested in technical innovations, but regarding camera movement, he and Ford were both purists and shared the same disdain for camera tricks. Toland advised young cameramen to “forget the camera, the nature of the story determines the photographic style. Understand the story and make the most of it. If the audience is conscious of tricks and effects, the cameraman’s genius no matter how great it is, is wasted.” Toland demanded that the imagery should serve the story.

Toland and Ford studied some of the same imagery that influenced Steinbeck. They screened the government documentary films of Pare Lorentz: The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937). They studied the still images of contemporary photographers such as: Margaret Bourke-White, Walter Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, Roy Stryker and particularly Dorothea Lange, whose famous Migrant Mother became an icon of the times. Toland and Ford were also both great readers of books. Als Hilton in the New Yorker observes that Toland was “most impressive when the narratives…had a slightly cynical take on capitalism and its effect on the poor. The bleak poeticism of his lighting design and composition is reminiscent of Walter Evans. In The Grapes of Wrath, when the Joads enter a migrant camp in California the camera sits on the dashboard of their truck like a weary passenger a witness to America’s invisible class.” Ford praised Toland, saying he “did a great job of photography [in the film]—absolutely nothing but nothing to photograph, not one beautiful thing in there—just sheer good photography.”

As have many critics, Roger Ebert places John Ford in the ranks of the conservative, stating that  “The Grapes of Wrath is a left-wing parable, directed by a right-wing American director.” However upon closer examination Ford’s politics are hard to pin down. His famous dressing down of Cecil B. De Mille in 1950 after he implied that a number of directors might have communist leanings would certainly put him in the more liberal camp. Many wrongly assume that he held the same views of some of his more famous Republican cohorts, such as John Wayne and Ward Bond. In fact, he was more of a “blue collar guy”, often preferring to spend time with technicians rather than Hollywood “big shots”. Ford lived in the same very modest house for over 30 years; his only capitalist concession was his beloved 100-foot yacht Araner. As he aged he apparently became somewhat more conservative; but there is no real evidence that he was not as he stated many times “a lifelong Democrat.”

Ford ended the film with Henry Fonda going over the hill, but Zanuck wanted a more upbeat ending so he had Johnson lift Ma Joad’s speech from the middle of the book “[W]e keep a-comin. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out They can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever Pa, ‘cause we’re the people.”

Frank S. Nugent’s famous review in the New York Times echoes the opinions of the majority of critics: “In the vast library where the celluloid literature of the screen is stored there is one small, uncrowded shelf devoted to the cinema’s masterworks, to those films which by dignity of theme and excellence of treatment seem to be of enduring artistry, seem destined to be recalled not merely at the end of their particular year but whenever great motion pictures are mentioned. To that shelf of screen classics Twentieth Century-Fox yesterday added its version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, …Direction, when it is as brilliant as Mr. Ford’s has been, is easy to recognize, but impossible to describe…What we’ve been trying to say is that The Grapes of Wrath is just about as good as any picture has a right to be; if it were any better, we just wouldn’t believe our eyes”.

John Ford won his second Best Director Oscar for The Grapes of Wrath. The film received six nominations, including Best Picture; and Jane Darwell won the Bes Supporting Actress award.

Chuck Wiebe teaches Film Studies at the Pittsburgh Campus of the University of Phoenix.  He has published over 60 articles on film as the National DVD Movies Examiner on .  His work has also appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He holds a BA in Fine Art from West Virginia University, and an MA in Art History from The Pennsylvania State University.  He also studied at the University of Rome, Italy.  He believes that film is the most influential art form of our time