If You're In Trouble Or Hurt Or Need, Go To Poor People.
On March 15, 1940, John Ford’s film version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was released to universal acclaim. This was perhaps the greatest moment of the cultural Left during the Great Depression. Of all the New Deal-era art that broadly made up the Popular Front, none were more well-remembered and beloved than the book and film versions of The Grapes of Wrath, despite and possibly because neither Ford nor Steinbeck was closely associated with that movement.
Steinbeck’s powerful 1939 novel was a sensation. Its tale of the Joads and their bitter journey from Oklahoma to California in search of work and a new life was a huge hit. Produced at the tail end of the worst economic crisis in American history, it galvanized attention on the plight of the so-called Okies, even if it didn’t lead to any policy to alleviate their problems, despite the fact that the book and the film both played up the Resettlement Administration camp that treated people decently, with the film even going into a closeup on the RA logo. The plight of white migrants to California had received a good bit of attention from artists, most notably in the photographs of Dorothea Lange. These migrants — more victims of New Deal farm policy that encouraged consolidation and industrial farming than the Dust Bowl, as most, including the fictional Joads, originated well east of the Dust Bowl — were part of the national crisis of the Great Depression, which led to a lot of hand-wringing, no shortage of fear, and a belated and relatively small government response to provide relief for these small farmers. The Grapes of Wrath focused national attention on their plight, especially with the release of the film.
John Ford was a brilliant choice to direct the film adaptation. Although today best known for his often racist westerns, he was more of a broad believer in a salt of the earth white populism that simply assumed a Turnerian view of history (which was almost ubiquitous during the New Deal among intellectuals, politicians, and artists. That is on full display in the film. The original New York Times review well-summarizes the popular reception to it:
We know the question you are asking, have been asking since the book was acquired for filming: Does the picture follow the novel, how closely and how well? The answer is that it has followed the book; has followed it closely, but not with blind, undiscriminating literalness; has followed it so well that no one who has read and admired it should complain of the manner of its screen telling. Steinbeck’s language, which some found too shocking for tender eyes, has been cleaned up, but has not been toned so high as to make its people sound other than as they are. Some phases of his saga have been skimped and some omitted; the book’s ending has been dropped; the sequence of events and of speeches has been subtly altered.
The changes sound more serious than they are, seem more radical than they are. For none of them has blurred the clarity of Steinbeck’s word-picture of the people of the Dust Bowl. None of them has rephrased, in softer terms, his matchless description of the Joad family’s trek from Oklahoma to California to find the promised land where work was plenty, wages were high and folk could live in little white houses beside an orange grove. None of them has blunted the fine indignation or diluted the bitterness of his indictment of the cruel deception by which an empty stew-pot was substituted for the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end. And none of them has—as most of us feared it might—sent the film off on a witch hunt, let it pretend there had just been a misunderstanding, made it end on the sunrise of a new and brighter day.
Steinbeck’s story might have been exaggeration; at least some will take comfort in thinking so. But if only half of it were true, that half still should constitute a tragedy of modern America, a bitter chapter of national history that has not yet been closed, that has, as yet, no happy ending, that has thus far produced but two good things: a great American novel (if it is truly a novel) and a great American motion picture.
Henry Fonda as Tom Joad was classic casting. With his flat Midwestern accent and good looks, he personified the prototype of the All-American young man, an image he would build upon for his entire career (and of course play against type in Once Upon a Time in the West, nearly 30 years later). His ideological transformation from rough and tumble Oklahoma white to organizer and lefty is a story of what happens to people when they are beaten down enough. Sure, grandpa dies, the brother-in-law runs away, and the family falls apart. Preacher Casey gets murdered by the farm owner thugs. But the struggle continues. Ma keeps the rest of the family together (and Jane Darwell was brilliant in this role) and Tom builds on Casey’s legacy, not as an ideological radical but as a man seeking answers to the poverty of his life.
Steinbeck himself was thrilled with the film version, writing “No punches were pulled. In fact….it is a harsher thing than the book.” And as great as the book is, the film is better as it distills the key points with great power while rewriting the book’s dark and somewhat gratuitous ending to provide some sort of hope at the end, as opposed to the flood and endless despair of the last section of the book.
The film and the book both make one huge and regrettable error, which is erasing non-white labor from the land. California was not this agricultural paradise where everyone could eat all the oranges they wanted. Those farmers had always sought cheap, exploitable labor, whether Mexican, Filipino, Japanese, or Okie. It was to serve these farmers that Mexico was exempt from the 1924 Immigration Act. They recruited labor from the Philippines after Japanese migration ended. Those immigrants would play a key role in the history of farmworker organizing. The Bracero Program would be a solution for the disappearance of white labor from the fields during World War II. But neither Steinbeck nor Ford had any interest in these non-whites at all and their stories and histories are a very conspicuous absence.
In the past, I’ve wondered what would have happened to Tom Joad in the future. I still say that had he not been thrown in jail for life by the cops or killed as an organizer, he would have fought in the Marines in World War II. Had he survived, he and his family would be working in the California defense plants like many other Depression era migrant whites, he would have bought a home in Orange County, and probably voted for Goldwater in 1964. But then I am not particularly romantic about the labor movement.
Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century
George Lipsitz, Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s
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Erik Loomis is Associate Professor of History at the University of Rhode Island. He's the author of A History of America in Ten Strikes (The New Press, 2018).