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Grapes of Wrath, The (Blu-ray Review)

25 Jun, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$29.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine.

Directors John Ford, Orson Welles and William Wyler all had historically imposing “runs” in the years leading up to World War II, but between 1939 and 1941, cinematographer Gregg Toland shot (among several other projects) Wyler’s Wuthering Heights, Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath and The Long Voyage Home, Welles’ Citizen Kane and Wyler’s The Little Foxes. Along with the immediately postwar The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler again), I think these are the movies most immediately think of when it comes to discussing the most famed and highly paid cinematographer of his time and one who’s still kind of a standard-bearer today. I think it was during my first job as a high schooler (in a CBS affiliate’s film/promotion departments) that someone pointed out to me that Toland went against the axiom that old-school camera guys all lived to be ancient. He died at 44 of a coronary — and this after losing a few key years to war service — which means that Toland’s “in his prime” filmography (say, 1939 on) isn’t as large as we’d like. Thus, when a Toland movie comes to Blu-ray, it is a big deal.

The 1940 screen version of John Steinbeck’s landmark Depression novel rated a solid 2004 DVD, and this upgrade (which is what it is) further boosts a movie that consciously reflected Dorothea Lange’s still photographs of sharecroppers, migrant workers and similarly displaced families when she worked for the Farm Security Administration. There was a lot of worry that 20th Century-Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck — a Republican — and director Ford might soft-soap Steinbeck’s novel. But it has been said by more than one that the Ford/Toland images here may be an even more powerful evocation of the plight than what even the book offered — though Nunnally Johnson’s script, like Daniel Taradash’s for From Here to Eternity, remains a model of how to condense a long novel and “clean it up” for the day’s professional censors and the rest of the country’s dim-bulb contingent. Supposedly, the politically conservative Zanuck hired a detective to see if Steinbeck’s novel had overstated the case in terms of the squalor that these Depression survivors had to endure. The word came back that they were even worse.

This isn’t the Toland deep focus that typifies Kane and Foxes. Much in The Grapes of Wrath is low-key and dark, and the movie itself is an unusual mixture of documentary-like realism and big-screen drama directed to full dramatic effect (Ford got an Oscar here). The prints of Grapes that I used to watch with considerable frequency when I worked at the TV station tended to bleach out some and never did the picture full justice. The Blu-ray, though, definitely pleased me, and I did feel to some extent as if I were seeing the movie for the first time again. As with the preceding DVD, the package is a full mix of movie, commentary, Zanuck bio and one of those look-backs hosted by Tom Rothman on the Fox Movie Channel. Here are a few things I took from an evening spent:

• Steinbeck always liked the movie and in 1958 told Grapes lead Henry Fonda that he had just watched and again been taken by it — thanks to a 16mm print that Elia Kazan had once stolen from the studio (a succulent concept). Earlier in that decade, Steinbeck had written the screenplay for Kazan’s Viva Zapata! at Fox — and earlier done the same there for Lifeboat and Alfred Hitchcock (someone Steinbeck couldn’t abide).

• The highly complementary joint commentary here is a match in heaven: Ford biographer Joseph McBride (his Searching for John Ford is a must) and Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw, whose knowledge is on an equal plane. At first, I thought this might be one of those voiceovers where two segments are edited together, but there’s a point fairly late on where the two mix it up a little (albeit politely). It has to do with whether Steinbeck became a political conservative near the end of his life the way Ford did (the director ended up supporting Vietnam and Nixon). Shillinglaw maintains “no way” despite McBride’s doubts and claims that the author’s initial tolerance (my word) for the war began to turn at the very end of his life (he died in 1968, the year a lot of people “turned”).

• It’s a tad bizarre watching these Steinbeck/Ford Okies trucking down Route 66 so soon after my heavily sampling of George Maharis and Martin Milner doing the same (though hardly in a truck) on Shout! Factory’s recent boxed set of the "Route 66" TV series. One lovely touch in Grapes (and McBride notes it as well) finds the Joad family driving past a road sign proclaiming the “Will Rogers Highway” — a nice dovetail with the fact that Ford directed Rogers in three features, including one of his best (Judge Priest) and last (Steamboat Around the Bend).
• I don’t know what is more amazing: that Steinbeck wrote his novel in five months or that Ford shot the picture in about six weeks

• So far, Grapes and Kane are the only major Tolands to appear on Blu-ray. (I suppose, or at least fear, that the independent production The Long Voyage Home might take a lot of restoration work.) And because it marked one of the few times he worked in Technicolor, you can add Toland’s participation on Disney’s Song of the South as one more reason it would be instructive to see that racial hot potato get an official DVD/Blu-ray release, assuming that any such version would also come with a lot of socio-political annotation as bonus material. Put this in the “fat chance” category — though there was, indeed, a time when Disney swore they’d never put Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on VHS.

• Zanuck, the only non-Jew then running a major studio, thirsted for awards and recognition like anyone else. One can understand that a TV show like “Biography” probably has to concentrate on household names when pitching the career milestones of a subject to a mass audience, but the Zanuck portrait included here talks an awful lot about the socially conscious films Zanuck produced (Grapes being a successful, enduring example) that aren’t spoken of much today. Gentleman’s Agreement and Pinky were big at the time, but I doubt if there is a professional film journalist or historian around who would rate them over, say, Fox’s Otto Preminger noirs and melodramas. In fact, it’s not even clear that those films’ shared director — Kazan — would have himself, at least after a time.

• Shillinglaw correctly notes that after these decades, Steinbeck’s rarely more topical novel is still one of the most banned books around. I suppose this eye-roller actually comes with social networking benefits for anyone who graduated from a high school class (mine was 550) and is trying to figure out whatever happened to old so-and-so, who placed “448” in academic standing. It’s easy: he or she is off in some burg putting pressure on libraries and high schools to ban The Grapes of Wrath.

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