Today is Sunday, so it’s time for another new Code film article in our semi-weekly series 100 New Code Films. This series is about movies from the American Breen Era (1934-1954) which we have yet to see. When one is able to list countless classic films of which the average person has never even heard, he considers himself quite well-acquainted with the Golden Era of Hollywood. After watching almost nothing but classic movies all my life, that is how I feel. However, all I have to do is glance at a random old actor’s filmography to realize how many hundreds of movies I have yet to discover and watch. This series gives me a good outlet for watching and reviewing as many of these movies as possible.
Today’s topic is The Grapes of Wrath from 1940. This is one of the movies, one of the Academy Award-winning films I listed for watching sometime this year, since it won Best Director. I have heard about this critically acclaimed film for years. At the beginning of this week, I was revising my latest article for the Epoch Times, Coronaphobia and Films: How Epidemic Films Could Contribute to CCP-Virus Panic, which I described on my website here. I decided to end it with a comparison between the current pandemic and difficult times which happened during the Code years, such as the Great Depression and World War II. After doing extensive research, I decided that the perfect film to illustrate the difficulties of the Great Depression was The Grapes of Wrath. Since I hadn’t seen this film, I decided I needed to watch it before I could finish my article, which was published online today. I also could use this film as my second new Code film of the week. I rented it on Amazon Prime Video and watched it on Tuesday.
A young man gets out of jail on parole after being in the penitentiary for four years on a self-defense homicide charge. He goes back to his family’s sharecrop farm only to find it deserted, since the drought and ruthless winds have ruined the land until they were evicted. He and his former minister friend find his parents, grandparents, three brothers, two sisters, and brother-in-law at his uncle’s farm, which is soon also going to be taken away. They are planning to go to California, where they have heard there is work for good wages, so he goes with them. The journey is long and difficult, and California doesn’t prove to be the land of opportunity for which they had hoped. Can the family stay together and keep going as they face starvation and unemployment?
This movie stars Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, and John Carradine. Supporting actors include Charley Grapewin, Dorris Bowdon, Russell Simpson, O. Z. Whiteheart, and Eddie Quillen.
This movie was directed by John Ford. It was produced by Darryl F. Zanuck with associate producer Nunnally Johnson. The production company was 20th Century Fox. The screenplay was written by Nunnally Johnson, based on the famous novel of the same name by John Steinbeck. This film was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor for Henry Fonda, Best Screenplay for Nunnally Johnson, Best Sound Recording for Edmund H. Hansen, and Best Film Editing for Robert L. Simpson. It won Best Director for John Ford and Best Supporting Actress for Jane Darwell.
This is a perfect Code film. I haven’t been so moved by a movie in a long time. I researched this film on Monday night and found that some theaters had not admitted children to see this film upon its initial release. I wasn’t very surprised, since local censors could be very strict and even narrow-minded. From what I had read about this movie and the book from which it came, I believed that this was a dark, dismal, and depressing film. I was amazed by how wrong I was. Grapes of Wrath is just the opposite. This film is the single-best remedy for the pandemic doldrums I know. I was quite depressed and downhearted when I watched this film on Tuesday morning, but, when the film had ended, I felt hopeful again. Watching this film was an emotional experience for me. What has all this to do with Code-classification? Quite a bit, in fact. This movie is not completely free from Code violations. Before I watched this film, I heard that Henry Fonda says one profane word. In the film, I barely heard him say it, since he muttered it under his breath in a distance shot when his words could barely be heard. If I hadn’t known that he said it in advance, I may not have caught it. Also, in the later part of the film, the Joads go to a clean camp which is like the Waldorf Astoria compared with the squalor of the other Hoovervilles they visited. When they first arrive, they learn that the camp includes sanitation units, which feature showers, sinks, and toilets. Later, the two Joad children are marveling at the sanitation units, having never seen indoor plumbing before. Offscreen, they wonder what something is, and we hear a flush. They run, fearing they have broken it, but we never seen the commode. The Code usually forbade reference to toilets or the inclusion of a flushing sound. However, I felt that they were acceptable in this case. They weren’t included for humor or to be vulgar. They simply were realistic glimpses into the abject poverty and lack of modern conveniences which these people had endured. This film is extremely serious and very realistic, but it isn’t something which children can’t watch. There is no blood and no indecent content. There is nothing disgusting about this movie. The characters’ fearless determination makes one realize how fortunate we are. The average American hasn’t experienced anything anywhere near the hardships shown in this film. It helps put the inconveniences, lockdowns, and hardships of the global pandemic into perspective.
I can’t recommend this film enough. Everyone should see this film at some point. Many famous films don’t live up to their hype in my opinion, but I thought that this one surpassed what I had heard about it. The acting was phenomenal. Henry Fonda gives the best performance I have ever seen from him, realistically creating the character of a young farmer who has lost everything but his pride and his courage. Jane Darwell is outstanding as the mother who keeps the whole family together with her care and determination. John Carradine is perfect as the former minister who is confused yet somehow still confident as he struggles to find where he belongs. The rest of the cast members, too numerous to mention, are perfect in their parts. One person who stood out to me was Rosasharn (Dorris Bowdon), Tom’s sister who is expecting her first baby. Impending motherhood was depicted with such delicacy in most Code films that the actresses wear tight dresses which would be impossible when great with child. This was due to the fact that many censors deleted references to and depictions of expectancy, which they thought was not a suitable topic for mixed company. In this film, that tactful delicacy, which I appreciate, is used. However, Rosasharn wears loose dresses that hide her form in the middle. While we don’t see her baby bump, she looks like she could be expectant. Her acting also added to the effect, since she acted increasingly weary and belabored during the journey. This is one of the most realistic films I have ever seen. I believe it could be enjoyed by someone who is not a classic film fan and isn’t familiar with many old movies. It is so real and so gripping that I think it could reach anyone. Anyone who wants to know about the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the plight of the migrant farmers should watch this movie. These two hours of film paint a more vivid picture than any history course could. The depiction of the camp where the Joads stay in California is so real that it’s hard to believe the people are actors. They are wearing no makeup, their clothes are filthy, and their expression speak of total despair. You can see the bones in the children’s arms.
This movie shows real trouble and want, but it doesn’t drag you down. The film added a note of hope which was absent in the book. Instead of a showing a family which is torn apart, it shows the American spirit, which can never be defeated. Even as picking a whole crate of peaches for only 5 cents is a good job, these people keep going. They aren’t looking for a handout. They are too strong to quit. Their Yankee ingenuity is inspiring to modern Americans and people everywhere, especially during hard times like now, when many people are without work. A perfect sentiment for these times is Ma’s final speech in the film: “But we 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.”
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