The Grapes of Wrath

Provost's Film Series


December 9, 2002



Released in 1940, John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath emerged out of the American Depression and one of the great studio eras of America film.  The collapse of the American stock market in 1929 led to the loss of jobs nationwide.  Economic hardship was compounded in the Midwest by years of drought, resulting in the "Dust Bowl" in Oklahoma that decimated many farmers.  Banks foreclosed on the property of farm owners, and many Midwesterners fled to California.  John Steinbeck's novel transformed the migrant "Okies" into symbols of the dispossessed worker of the Depression era.


John Steinbeck

Born in California's Salinas Valley in 1902, Steinbeck studied marine biology at Stanford University.  Leaving school before graduation, he tried his hand at freelance journalism in New York, but eventually returned to the Salinas Valley, the site of much of his most famous fiction, including Of Mice and Men and East of Eden.  In 1935 he won acclaim for Tortilla Flat.  He followed that novella with several works in the next four years, culminating with The Grapes of Wrath in 1939.  His later work was less distinguished, though he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962, six years before his death.


American Thought

Steinbeck is praised more for his storytelling abilities than for his ideas, yet The Grapes of Wrath is occasionally lauded for fusing together several strains of American thought.  The novel about the Joad family evokes the Jeffersonian ideal of an agrarian nation full of small farmers.  When the banks foreclose upon the bankrupt farmers and repossess the land with their new machinery, one can certainly hear the Jeffersonian fears of industrialization.  One can also sense that the "inalienable rights" of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness"—or, perhaps more accurately, John Locke's creed of "life, liberty and property"—have been compromised.  Yet Steinbeck is also attracted to the ideals of socialism, spreading throughout many American intellectual circles during the Depression era.  Steinbeck presents the economic crisis of the time as a conflict between the "People," or the working class, and the wealthy elite, symbolized by William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon who built a mansion on thousands of acres near the ocean at San Simeon, California.  The socialist idealism of the story is underscored by the Joads' belief that they must grow beyond their own nuclear family and accept their membership in the great "family" of humanity. 


Biblical Imagery

The Grapes of Wrath also relies extensively on biblical imagery, as Steinbeck casts the story of the down-and-out "Okies" as a moral and spiritual epic.  The title itself echoes "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" as well as the Book of Revelation.  The journey to the "promised land" of California, of course, evokes the biblical exodus to Canaan.   The disaffected "preacher" Jim Casy (initials:  J.C.) becomes a Christ figure, with Tom Joad as his Apostle Paul.  The film version captures some, but not all, of the biblical echoes.  Critics of the book and film have long been divided about whether the use of the biblical motifs is labored or inspiring.


The American Studio System

The 1930s saw the development of the studio system, as large Hollywood studios had a virtual monopoly on American film.  Eight West Coast studios—such as Paramount, Warner Brothers, MGM, and Columbia—produced 75% of the movies released in America and claimed over 90% of the box office sales.   Oriented toward commercial success, the studio system emphasized feature films.  Several American blockbusters were produced during the final years of the 1930s, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1938), Gone With the Wind (1939), and The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Although initially the triumph of the studios represented an effort by Wall Street executives to get control of the movie business, the studio system  led to the distinction between ownership and management.  New York executives controlled the budget and marketing, while the day-to-day development of the films rested in the hands of creative directors.  The exception to this rule, however, was the formation of a new company in 1935 which merged Twentieth Century Pictures with the newly bankrupt Fox Film Corporation.  Darryl Zanuck, a former writer and executive with Warner Brothers, became the "creative executive" of Twentieth Century Fox and maintained a strong hand in the actual filmmaking.  By Zanuck's own testimony, he produced some "hokum" films to sell tickets, but he also invested much of his profit in securing the services of distinguished director John Ford.  Ford, along with his "contract star" Henry Fonda, produced a notable series for Zanuck, including Drums Along the Mohawk (1938), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940).


John Ford, Director

Born in 1894, just after Congress declared the American frontier "closed," John Ford became best known as a director of Westerns.  Between 1917 and 1921 he directed a series of 25 Western formula films with the star Harry Carey (in the character of "Cheyenne Harry"), but some commercial failures led him to abandon the Western and focus on other genres, among them some films that explored his own Irish heritage.  The Informer, a film about Irish republicanism, returned Ford to critical favor in the 1930s. Ford also helped revive the struggling career of a young actor named John Wayne with his own return to Westerns in the 1939 film Stagecoach.  Ford's later work featured many admired Westerns:  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Searchers (1956), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).  The Grapes of Wrath explores many of Ford's recurrent themes—the importance of family and home, the lure and loneliness of the open west, and the struggles of the social outcast.


Gregg Toland, Cinematographer

The Grapes of Wrath also features the work of Gregg Toland, perhaps the most famous cinematographer in the early history of American film.  One year after The Grapes of Wrath, Toland would combine forces with Orson Welles in the highly innovative film Citizen Kane, a thinly disguised study of William Randolph Hearst.  In The Grapes of Wrath, Toland used a chiaroscuro technique, reminiscent of the Italian painter Caravaggio and the Dutch artist Rembrandt.  The technique relies on a single source of light, often a candle, illuminating an otherwise dark scene.  The light, while entirely natural, carries with it certain mystical or spiritual overtones.