T. it.: Furore; Sog.: dall’omonimo romanzo (1939) di John Steinbeck; Scen.: Nunnally Johnson; F.: Gregg Toland; Mo.: Robert L. Simpson; Scgf.: Richard Day, Mark-Lee Kirk; Cost.: Gwen Wakeling; Mu.: Alfred Newman; Su.: George Leverett, Roger Heman; Int.: Henry Fonda (Tom Joad), Jane Darwell (Ma Joad), John Carradine (Casy), Charley Grapewin (non- no Joad), Dorris Bowdon (Rose of Sharon), Russell Simpson (Pa Joad), O.Z. Whitehead (Al Joad), John Qualen (Muley Graves), Eddie Quillan (Connie Rivers), Zeffie Tilbury (non- na Joad), Frank Sully (Noah), Frank Darien (zio John), Darryl Hickman (Winfield), Shirley Mills (Ruth Joad); Prod.: Darryl F. Zanuck, Nunnally Johnson, per Twentieth Century Fox 35mm. D.: 128’. Bn.
“I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags,” John Steinbeck told the publisher of The Grapes of Wrath; “I don’t want him satisfied.” These are not sentiments one expects Hollywood to endorse, especially at Shirley Temple’s studio. Yet such was the impact of Steinbeck’s novel that Darryl F. Zanuck, Twentieth Century-Fox’s production chief, was swiftly able to oversee an adaptation more faithful than any observer expected. American critics approached ecstasy on the film’s release. Frank Nugent (The New York Times) immediately detected a masterpiece. Steinbeck himself thought it a “hard, straight picture in which the actors are submerged so completely that it looks and feels like a documentary film”. All this was understandable. In 1940 the experience of the Dust Bowl migration, experienced by Steinbeck’s fictional Joad family, was still raw. And the film’s qualities are undeniable. Fierce sun and shadow and Gregg Toland’s finesse make for extraordinary photography, but nothing coalesces into pretty pictures. You can’t shake off the grim reality of the Joad jalopy rattling down Route 66 towards exploitation and degradation in California’s promised land.
Yet we don’t have to be like the film’s screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, who said his assignment made him feel he was “carrying the Holy Grail”. The Grapes of Wrath is a film of tensions and contradictions. Some points made are needle-sharp, others are muffled. Toland’s piercing imagery of sky, flat plains, and road can suddenly give way to actors in the studio, trapped inside that hollow space that all cycloramas impose. And reality does get compromised. The government-run migrant camp belongs in heaven, with its Roosevelt-lookalike leader benign, unruffled, and always in clean white pants.
Where in all this is John Ford? Not in the sharper socio-political elements lifted from Steinbeck’s book. His heart is with Tom Joad and Ma, the migrants’ community spirit, and his actors. In Henry Fonda’s Tom moral fervour, brashness, and decency are powerfully blended. Physically, Jane Darwell bears no resemblance to Steinbeck’s Ma, thin and pinched. Ford’s version is an indomitable Mother Earth, given to sentimentality in cadence if not in the words actually uttered. Yet in many key scenes there is nothing suffocating about her; certainly not when she wistfully toys with her earrings in a faded mirror, or ponders how to feed her family as well as a camp’s starving children. Compromises and blips accepted, The Grapes of Wrath can still hit the bull’s eye.