The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Eighty-three years ago today, the film The Grapes of Wrath premiered in New York City. The film is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. In 1989, it was one of the first 25 films selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Title: The Grapes of Wrath
Directed by: John Ford
Screenplay by: Nunnally Johnson
Based on: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Produced by: Darryl F. Zanuck and Nunnally Johnson
Henry Fonda as Tom Joad; Jane Darwell as “Ma” Joad; John Carradine as Jim Casy; Charley Grapewin as William James “Grandpa” Joad; Dorris Bowdon as Rose of Sharon “Rosasharn” Joad; Russell Simpson as “Pa” Joad; O. Z. Whitehead as Al Joad; John Qualen as Muley Graves; Eddie Quillan as Connie Rivers; Zeffie Tilbury as Grandma Joad; Frank Sully as Noah Joad; Frank Darien as Uncle John; Darryl Hickman as Winfield Joad; Shirley Mills as Ruth “Ruthie” Joad; Roger Imhof as Mr. Thomas; Grant Mitchell as Caretaker; Charles D. Brown as Wilkie; John Arledge as Davis; Ward Bond as Policeman; Harry Tyler as Bert; William Pawley as Bill; Charles Tannen as Joe; Selmer Jackson as Inspection Officer; Charles Middleton as Leader; Eddie Waller as Proprietor; Paul Guilfoyle as Floyd; David Hughes as Frank; Cliff Clark as City Man; Joseph Sawyer as Keene Ranch Foreman; Frank Faylen as Tim; Adrian Morris as Agent; Hollis Jewell as Muley’s Son; Robert Homans as Spencer; Irving Bacon as Driver; Kitty McHugh as Mae; Tom Tyler as Deputy (uncredited); Joe Bordeaux as Migrant (uncredited); Francis Ford as Migrant (uncredited)
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Edited by: Robert L. Simpson
Music by: Alfred Newman
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Release date: January 24, 1940 (United States)
Running time: 129 minutes
Country: United States
Language: English
Budget: $800,000
Box office: $1,591,000
Academy Award: Best Director – John Ford; Best Supporting Actress – Jane Darwell

After being released from prison, Tom Joad hitchhikes his way to his share-cropper parents’ farm in Oklahoma. He comes upon Jim Casy, an itinerant man sitting under a tree by the roadside. Tom remembers Casy as the preacher who baptized him, but Casy has “lost the spirit” and his faith. Casy goes with Tom to the Joad property. It is deserted but they find neighbor Muley Graves, who is hiding out there. In a flashback, he describes how the local farmers were forced from their farms by the land deedholders, who knocked down their houses with tractors. Tom soon reunites with the family at his uncle’s house. The Joads are migrating with other evicted families to the promised land of California. They pack everything into a dilapidated car adapted to serve as a truck to make the long journey. Casy decides to accompany them.

The trip along Highway 66 is arduous, and it soon takes a toll on the Joad family. The elderly Grandpa dies along the way. Tom writes the circumstances surrounding the death on a page from the family Bible and places it on the body before they bury it, so his death will not be mistaken as a homicide if discovered. They park in a camp and meet a migrant man returning from California. He scoffs at Pa’s optimism about opportunities in California and speaks bitterly about his experiences in the West. Grandma dies when they reach California. Eldest son, Noah, leaves the family, while son-in-law, Connie, deserts his pregnant wife, Rose-of-Sharon.

The family arrives at the first transient migrant campground for workers. The camp is crowded with other starving, jobless, and desperate travelers. As their truck slowly makes its way through a row of shanty houses and around the camp’s hungry-faced inhabitants, Tom notes it, “Sure don’t look none too prosperous.”

After seeing trouble between the sheriff and an agitator, the Joads hurriedly leave the camp. The family goes to another migrant camp, the Keene Ranch. After working in the fields, they discover the high food prices in the company store, the only one in the area. When a group of migrant workers is striking, Tom wants to learn more about it. He attends a secret meeting in the dark woods. When the gathering is discovered, Casy is killed by a camp guard. Tom inadvertently kills the guard while defending himself.

Tom suffers a serious cheek wound, making him easily recognizable. That evening, the family hides Tom when guards arrive searching for who killed the guard. Tom avoids being spotted, and the family leaves the Keene Ranch without further incident. After driving awhile, the truck breaks down at the crest of a hill. They have little gas and decide to coast down the hill to where there are some lights. They arrive at the Farmworkers’ Weedpatch Camp (“Wheat Patch”), a clean facility run by the Department of Agriculture, complete with indoor toilets and showers, which the Joad children have never seen before.

Tom is moved to work for change by what he has witnessed in the various camps. He tells his family that he plans to carry on Casy’s mission by fighting for workers rights.

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