This post is my contribution to the John Ford blogathon, hosted by the fabulous Krell Laboratories and Bemused and Nonplussed. Read all the great entries here, and remember how broad and varied (and incredible!) Ford’s career was.
Book to film adaptations are notoriously tricky. Some stories are made for the page; others are given new life when filled in with broad cinematic brushstrokes. John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath is one of the few stories that sits comfortably in both mediums. Whilst the John Ford-directed movie may not be as shocking as the book, it certainly evokes many of the same sentiments and the on-location shots add depth and realism to Steinbeck’s Depression-era tale.
The film follows the story of Tom Joad (played by Henry Fonda) a recently released sharecropper who goes back to his family’s farm, only to discover they have been forced to flee their land. Along with former preacher Casy (John Carradine), Tom traces them to his uncle’s dwelling, where the family are making plans to pack all their belongings into a rickety jalopy and travel cross-country to Florida in search of handbill advertised seasonal labouring. Opening with a memorable shot of a vast, open landscape, intersected by a straight road, Ford introduces the landscape itself as a character. During most of the shots in Oklahoma, there’s the constant sound of wind, which emphasises the inadequacy of the Joad’s house, but is a constant reminder of the landscape, that they don’t own it but merely live upon it. In contrast, the sun-drenched California (imagine the contrast if the film had been shot in colour!) is framed by the soundtrack of cricket chirps; it’s still and more subdued yet the Joad’s still struggle to claim their place.
Steinbeck wasn’t convinced that the novel could be filmed. Although he spent considerable time researching the period and the characters, he wrote the novel fairly quickly, often writing whole chapters at a time. The book was released in the US in April 1939 and was an immediate, if controversial success. Banned in many libraries across America, burned by angry cotton farmers and dismissed by The Associated Farmers of California dismissed the novel as a “pack of lies” and “communist propaganda”. Conservative Hollywood liked its bestseller status, but was wary of the political and social content. Darryl F. Zanuck, then head of production at Twentieth Century-Fox, bought the rights, convinced that – with the right director – the novel could be turned into a compelling film in the style of Wild Boys of the Road and Heroes For Sale, Depression-era films he had previously overseen at Warner Brothers in the early 1930s.
Zanuck was convinced that John Ford, who had already directed several Westerns (including The Iron Horse and The Informer), was the best man for the job. Many of his earlier pictures had silent film qualities, and evoked a deep sympathy for ordinary men and women alongside an awareness of American landscapes and an ability to blend the personal and the political.
Production began in October 1939, with most of the pre-production completed before Ford joined the set. Cinematographer Gregg Toland and art director Richard Day had already decided on the look of the film – a documentary style that emphasised the human elements of the story without over sentimentalising them. With filming complete under budget and in less than 45 days, Ford pushed the actors to give heartfelt and emotive performances, often clashing with them over style and delivery. Reports suggest he was particularly hard on Dorris Bowdon (who played Rosasharn, Tom Joad’s younger sister) and frequently left her in tears. Although a makeup artist is credited, studio publicity materials noted that the director banned all make-up from the set, on the grounds that it was not in keeping with the tone of the picture. He insisted on filming the scene after Connie leaves Rosasharn on the allocated day, even though the actress had developed a painful sore on her face. He was convinced it added to the film’s authenticity, and filmed a high-contrast close up to emphasise her suffering.
Ford was similarly critical of John Carradine, an actor he reportedly dislike but tolerated because of his wonderful abilities. According to TCM, the chief source of irritation for Ford was his inability to embarrass or upset Carradine. By all accounts, Carradine had a huge ego, considered himself a great actor, and was impervious to whatever Ford threw at him -although their antagonism often produced perfect moments of performance and character’.
Henry Fonda, starring in his third consecutive Ford-directed movie, is the perfect Tom Joad and, compared to the other actors, escaped his criticism. Post-filming, Ford claimed that it was just another job that he completed to the best of his ability. “I didn’t wave any magic wand or look into a crystal ball. I just went out and did it. It was a lot of fun because I was back working again with Henry Fonda, really one of my favourite actors.”
Reportedly Steinbeck was also impressed with Fonda’s interpretation, saying that the performance made him “believe my own words”. As the anti-hero, whose experiences that shape both novel and film, Fonda elicits audience sympathy, but there’s an underlying understanding that his fate will always be unknown. Guided by Casy, he represents a moral compass and his ideological journey can be seen by the two killings he is responsible for. The killing (and the one he’s imprisoned for) takes place off-stage and is, according to his own explanation, a drunken brawl, the combination of confrontation and bad temper. The second, which occurs towards the film’s conclusion and is the catalyst for its ending, is driven by morals – when Tom and Casey are attacked by a group of ‘tin badges’, he kills one with his own club. He can see, for the first time, exactly how the world works, and shifts from an in-the-moment philosophy to a commitment to the greater cause.
Keen to capitalise on the book’s notoriety, the film was rushed through production and was initially released in January 1940. Despite the swift turnaround, it doesn’t feel rushed. The original source material obviously gave Ford a great deal of descriptive and visual cues to work with, and the director only made a few changes to Nunnally Johnson’s original screenplay. One key difference between book and film is the ending. Zanuck insisted on a happy conclusion, and Ford chose a speech between Ma and Tom Joad that highlighted how those affected by the Depression would still keep ‘goin’ on forever”. In fact, it’s Jane Darwell and not Fonda, who has the final say: “We’ll go on forever, Pa. ‘Cause … we’re the people!” It, and the final landscape shot, are a powerful conclusion to a story that is shaped by universal experiences and a shared common desire – to belong to the land that one owns.
Further reading: John Ford: Hollywood’s Old Master