'The Grapes of Wrath'

The Specter of Tom Joad Emerges From America's Dark Past, Once Again

by Chris Robé

6 October 2010


Factories in the Field

Perhaps most significantly, the film addresses the tensions between a clannish attitude and a more community-oriented one. Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) represents the interests of the family, whereas Tom Joad increasingly becomes more community-oriented. This tension is not unique to The Grapes of Wrath but pervades much of Hollywood cinema at the time. As Martin Rubin has shown, Depression-era films reverberate with the tensions found in New Deal society, which attempt an uneasy balance between a defense of individuality against the dehumanizing effects of the newly emergent consumer society while promoting new forms of collective organization that would curb the ills produced by laissez-faire capitalism and rugged individualism run amok. Ultimately, the individual-collectivist split represented “two value-systems… placed side by side, yoked together in a very steady balance without really coming together” (83). But instead of the individual and the collective, The Grapes of Wrath re-inscribes the tension between the family and the collective.

Tom moves away from his family towards the community until his image darkens into a silhouette and merges into the distant darkness, dissolving into the thousands of struggles that extend across the land and that still remain to be fought.

Ma constantly pleads with Tom to think about the family first. She insists: “Pa’s lost his place. He ain’t the head no more. We ain’t a family no more. The children will grow-up like animals” if Tom chooses to leave. But leave, Tom must. It is not coincidental that Tom and Ma’s final moment occurs on the edge of a dance platform that had been used in an earlier scene for a community dance.

Music and dance play privileged roles in all of Ford’s films—something that extends from his Irish-American background. It is often where the community comes together, where kinship is extended beyond bloodlines and ossified social norms dissolve into new and vital affective connections. The dance in The Grapes of Wrath not only offers the collective space for the camp’s members to prevent a fight and subsequent police repression, but also a playful atmosphere where young men and women break habit and obligatory bonds to explore new relationships and libidinal connections. We observe the latter as we watch Wilkie (Charles D. Brown), one of the Joad’s younger members, continuously woo a pregnant woman who is engaged to another. Despite her family’s protests, the two end-up dancing together, letting habit and obligation fall by the side as they reinsert themselves into the present moment of movement, sound, and laughter. 

cover art

Factories in the Field: The Story of Migratory Farm Labor in California

Carey McWilliams

(University of California Press)
US: Apr 2000

As a result, the final location of Tom and Ma possesses a strong symbolic charge. After Ma’s pleas, Tom launches into his famous movie monologue where his language Whitmanesquely extends beyond the individual into a communal, holistic outlook: “Fella ain’t got a soul of his own but a piece of a big soul of everyone. I’ll be everywhere. Whenever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever a cop is beating up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be there when kids laugh when supper’s ready… And when the people are eating the stuff they raised and living in their homes they built, I’ll be there, too.” After he finishing his speech, Tom crosses over the dance floor, moving away from his family towards the community until his image darkens into a silhouette and merges into the distant darkness, dissolving into the thousands of struggles that extend across the land and that still remain to be fought. It is the most powerful sequence of the film and remains one of the most inspiring moments of Hollywood cinema in general. In spite of a final sequence that returns to the Joads, under Zanuck’s insistence that the film have a more upbeat ending, Tom’s departing image into the unknown remains engraved in our memory.

The Grapes of Wrath remains significant not only as a trace of Depression-era culture, but it most famously encapsulates much of the populist rhetoric that still haunts US commercial cinema. For example, the ghost of Tom Joad suffuses Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) where we hear from everyday people about their struggles while the film vaguely gestures towards a systemic critique of capitalism. The distant voice of the Popular Front constantly renews itself in the work of Moore, Oliver Stone, John Sayles, and Spike Lee. Twentieth-Century Fox has offered an excellent DVD print of The Grapes of Wrath so one might re-familiarize oneself with the Popular Front’s origins. Furthermore, film scholar Joseph McBride and Steinbeck scholar Susan Shilling offer an informative commentary that situates the film within Depression-era Hollywood and the work of John Steinbeck. With the current economic climate such as it is, with the ever increasing rates of foreclosures and evictions and unemployment and poverty and misery, The Grapes of Wrath dangerously impinges upon the present to reveal the specter of Tom Joad emerging from the darkness, once again.

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