Saturday, 27 September 2014
The Grapes of Wrath: A Window into the Past
Thanks to Hollywood, the 1930's can sometimes be remembered as a glamorous time. Looking back at the old movies of Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and stars of the time, it can be easy to forget the things that were going on at that point in time. We can recall all the great pictures and the stars but what was going on behind all that? What were things really like in those days? In these olden days the movies were a means of escape, and with good reason considering what people were going through.
What may be common knowledge to historians but easy to forget when looking purely at film, is that the Studio Era, now often thought of as a "golden age", coincided with a very dark period in history. While studios profited, the average working man was faced with economic troubles all over the world. Work was nearly impossible to find, and the few jobs that could be obtained paid very little and had very poor conditions.
It was an accomplishment just to be able to scrape together enough for one meal. It was a period that would force people from their homes, losing nearly everything they had, and as if that wasn't bad enough, the thing that finally brought it to an end was a certain dictator's plans for mass genocide. In those days it likely did not have a name, but now we have come to know this point in time by one that is very fitting: the Great Depression.
With all the glamour that comes from Hollywood, it was interesting to see a film that showed another side of the 1930's. The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of an unfortunate family that loses everything to the depression, literally forced to live out on the road in a beat-up truck that could easily break down at any moment. Their only chance at any improvement to their situation is already a long shot, that if they can get to California than they might just be able to get a job picking oranges. Unfortunately, getting there is easier said than done, and what really awaits them is a road full of misery, tragedy, and heartbreak.
The basic tone of this story should hardly come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the work of John Steinbeck. I myself have only ever read one of his novels, Of Mice and Men, which also dealt with the troubles caused by the depression. That one focused on the friendship between two men, with the added problem that one is super strong but has the mind of a child. It builds up to them almost getting that place of their own that they wanted, only to end up in a situation where one is forced to kill the other. As you can imagine, Steinbeck has something of a reputation for writing very depressing stories.
The Grapes of Wrath was released in 1940, and for the time it would have been extremely relevant to its audiences, many of whom would likely have lived through the depression themselves (at a time when America was just starting to come out of it). Today it is kind of like looking into the past and glimpsing this old world, and the horrible struggles faced by the unfortunate men and women of the time.
Henry Fonda is really good as the central character of Tom Joad, the ex-convict who just wants to go clean and start fresh with his family only to get roped into this mess. He wants to go clean and be left alone, but as troubles pile upon everyone that becomes increasingly difficult. He has to do everything he can to hold the family together, but situation after situation presents itself where it becomes harder and harder to tell just what is the right thing.
John Ford's direction with this movie is spot on in any way you can imagine. Seeing as he is usually associated with the western genre, it is a nice change of pace to see him tackling something very different and more (for the time) modern issues. The tone of his direction is appropriately dark, but never too much so. There is always a faint glimmer of hope, even if it's nearly impossible to see.
I would strongly recommend The Grapes of Wrath as a classic worth giving a watch. It is a film that will allow you to look at a point in history not often shown in films of the studio era, made by people who would have been affected by it on some level. It is a very emotional experience that will allow you to get a glimpse of just what homelessness can feel like, and appreciate the rare moments of genuine kindness all the more.