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

With the current economic climate -- increasing rates of foreclosure, evictions, unemployment, poverty and misery -- this classic story dangerously impinges upon the present to reveal the specter of Tom Joad emerging from the darkness, once again.

In 1940, after 11 years of the Depression grinding the laissez-faire beliefs of the '20s into a distant memory, Hollywood found itself in a semi-radicalized position. The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League was formed in 1936. The Motion Picture Artists Committee for Loyalist Spain was founded in 1937, and the Motion Picture Artists Committee, which endorsed liberal political candidates, in 1938. The most radical union, the Screen Writers Union, was recognized by the National Labor Relations Board in 1938. Studio executives now had to seriously address the writers’ four demands: 1) proper screen credit allotment; 2) amalgamation with other writing unions to close down studios in case of strike; 3) ownership of all story material; and 4) a closed shop.

Conditions were ripe for the emergence of The Grapes of Wrath from the recently founded studio Twentieth-Century Fox. Producer Darryl Zanuck had always been considered sympathetic to progressive film content. While at Warner Bros. he championed the production of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1933), which chronicles the real-life exploits of Robert Burns who had been mercilessly imprisoned and punished by the Georgia penal system. In 1933 he left Warners to found his own studio, Twentieth-Century Films, which purchased the bankrupt Fox Studios in 1935 to finally become Twentieth-Century Fox.

Similarly, John Ford had proven his progressive credentials with his pro-I.R.A., expressionist-inflected 1935 film The Informer. It won Best Actor, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Music during the 1936 Oscars. Ford’s frequent screenwriter, Dudley Nichols, held well-known Left sympathies and consistently pushed Ford’s filmmaking into even more populist directions as their 1939 collaboration Stagecoach reveals, where bankers are exposed as scoundrels, and prostitutes and outlaws represent the true legacy of American democracy and frontier fortitude.

The Grapes of Wrath remains a foundational example of Popular Front culture. The Popular Front refers to a change in Communist Party ideology in 1935. Instead of opposing other Left groups like socialists, democrats, and anarchists, as had been previously done, the party initiated a coalition among them in order to collectively combat the rising threat of international fascism. Many cultural workers joined in the three primary efforts initiated by the Popular Front: anti-fascism, pro-union, and racial equality. Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, James Cagney, John Howard Lawson, Billie Holiday, Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, John Steinbeck, John Ford, and Dudley Nichols, to only name a few, all allied themselves with a Popular Front outlook. Because of the diverse Left political philosophies influencing Popular Front culture, the products tend to emphasize a populist outlook with opaque gestures towards systemic analysis of capitalism and oppression.

Along similar lines, The Grapes of Wrath, both novel and film, focus more on the plight of the people than offer a direct critique of monopoly capitalism. As Michael Denning notes in The Cultural Front, the novel’s “overwhelming [reliance upon] biological metaphors seemed to reduce political struggles to elements of natural history” (266). This attitude carries over into the film. In the scene when Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) encounters his family’s abandoned shack, a dispossessed, slightly insane neighbor informs him that “the dusters done it [evicted the family],” not the companies. He continues: “After the dusters come, the tenant-system doesn’t make much sense anymore.” Likewise, in a later scene, a tenant questions who he has to shoot to stop a bulldozer from razing his shack. The company man responds, “There is no one to blame.” But, of course, we know otherwise.

Carey McWilliams’ book Factories in the Field appeared the same year as Steinbeck’s novel. Based upon reports he had been filing with The Nation, McWilliams offered a much more radical and systemic analysis of the factory farming system that the Joads eventually confront in California. The book stretches back into the 19th century and across races to narrate “a story of nearly seventy years’ exploitation of minority racial and other groups by a powerful clique of landowners whose power is based upon an anachronistic system of landownership dating from the creation, during Spanish rule, of feudalistic patterns of ownership and control” (7). McWilliams concludes: “the real solution involves the substitution of collective agriculture for the present monopolistically owned and controlled system” (324). This conclusion quite drastically contrasts Steinbeck’s ending where the Joads remain trapped in an abandoned boxcar as floodwaters rise. The only moment of hope emerges when Rose of Sharon offers her breast milk to a stranger, hinting at the ways in which a clannish attitude must extend to a wider community if the poor are to endure.

However, in spite of the book’s and film’s limits, one must not underplay the film’s significance in undermining the conservative tenor of much Hollywood filmmaking. Edwin Locke wrote in the 1940 issue of Films: A Quarterly: “By touching on some of the results of land speculation, submarginal farming, agricultural mechanization, and the California latifundia, The Grapes of Wrath has set a precedent for contemporary and historical honesty in movie-making” (321). Similarly, Pare Lorentz observed how the film “is the first picture made in Hollywood since 1929 that deals with a current social problem, that has faithfully kept the intent of an author who stirred the country, [and] that had reproduced the bloody violence that has accompanied economic upheaval.”

Not surprisingly, the film’s best moments offer visual metaphors that condense socio-economic issues into a particularized moment. Ford has always been a master of filming space, and cinematographer Gregg Toland, who will later work on Citizen Kane (1941), enabled Ford to enact his vision with the film. In one scene we watch a bulldozer plow past a family futilely attempting to defend its shack. The camera follows the bulldozer’s tracks, revealing the cast shadows of the three family members across them. The camera continues to pan left over the debris of the shack and the busted fencing the tractor has ridden over. We watch the tractor continue indomitably chewing over the barren plains towards its next victim. Dispossession pervades the scene—the family’s shadows representing their ghostlike existence—without home and cast off their land in the matter of an instance, while industry pursues ever-increasing profits and indifferently shucks the human collateral to the side that stands in the way.

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