Unless I have missed something, at no point in the entire 1940 film version of The Grapes of Wrath does anyone explain what the title means. Tom Joad and his mother both have final monologues that may hint at it, but it seems like a strange title no matter how you look like it. So, what are the Grapes of Wrath?
The answer comes from John Steinbeck’s original novel. Steinbeck laces his book with alternating chapters. The often longer ones detail the travails of the Joads as they lose their Oklahoma farm and travel West to California, suffering hardships along the way as they are repeatedly treated poorly and lied to, cheated by the powerful, the implication being they are not the only ones, and indeed they are not. The other, shorter chapters see Steinbeck dramatizing the various typical people that the displaced Okies met along the way, such as truck salesmen who take as much as they can from the destitute farmers for barely mobile trucks, diners that won’t serve them, law enforcement intent on physically beating them down, ranchers who won’t pay them a living wage, and so forth. And towards the end of the novel, in the very last of these latter chapters, Steinbeck gets very philosophical. He suggests that men like Thomas Jefferson and Vladimir Lenin (and there are two names you probably don’t see compared to each other favorably too often in an American novel) don’t arise in the vacuum, and one day, these downtrodden farmers will rise up against the wealthy powers that kept them down, and on that day, those rich types will harvest the Grapes of Wrath.
Put that way, it sounds rather badass.
Now, Steinbeck in his original novel wrote over 500 pages and gave each member of the Joad’s party time to develop a personality. The film, directed by John Ford, doesn’t have that luxury. Sure, the Joads are all there, but many of them only get a token scene here or there if anything. The main focus for this film is on three people: newly paroled murderer Tom Joad, his mother Ma Joad, and a tagalong, the former preacher Jim Casy. The politics of the film is also toned down a bit. There will be no favorable talk of Lenin here. But even toned down, this may be the most socialist film on the AFI list. Consider who the villains are here: faceless capitalists and their enablers, the rough men who make sure their invisible masters get every penny. In a flashback to a farm going under, we see the sheriff explain to a sharecropper that it doesn’t matter that the sharecropper’s family has lived off that land for half a century. The holding company is the one who actually owns the land. And you can’t complain to them, because they just do what the bank says. And the nearest bank is in the big city, but even they answer to some central bank that’s probably in New York City or something. There is, essentially, no human being to talk to in order to save that farmer’s land. Even the guy driving the bulldozer is a local who needs to feed his own family. Thanks to the Dustbowl and the Great Depression, the sharecroppers are going under and there doesn’t seem to be a single way to stop them.
And then as the Joads and others travel west to the promised land of California, there really aren’t any people anywhere that seem inclined to help them. Sure, a diner owner may give them a deep discount on a loaf of bread and some candy for the two youngest Joads, but that’s about it. Cops aren’t there to enforce the law so much as crack skulls for wealthy ranchers who have probably never gotten their hands dirty a day in their lives, and everything about these jobs is designed to pay the sharecroppers as little as possible, all the while treating them like numbers on a balance sheet instead of as actual human beings. Sure, the workers may not think too highly of “Reds” if they even know what those are, but this story is hardly supportive of capitalism.
And who runs the one camp where the sharecroppers are treated with respect and even given running water, something the Joad children have never seen before? The federal government. Heck, I always thought the guy running the camp bore something of a resemblance to FDR anyway.
Of course, it is important to remember that political issues change over time. As radical as FDR might look in 2018, he was a very middle of the road politician in the 30s and 40s. There were much louder calls for socialism in some corners on the left and fascism in some corners on right. And for all California is one of the most liberal states in the union today, this is the same state that elected conservative icon Ronald Reagan governor.
Be that as it may, perhaps this film is ultimately a story of defiance. Things are down for the Joads, and through it all, they do their best to stick together. They don’t all make it. Grandpa dies early on, buried on the side of the road, the man who didn’t want to leave the land he saw as his own the most. One of Tom’s brothers disappears between scenes–in the novel, this brother is a simple-minded fellow who opts to live on a riverbank the family takes a break on, and no one sees fit to tell him otherwise–while pregnant sister Rosasharn’s husband Connie just abandons her one night. Grandma Joad dies in the back of the truck, and Ma Joad famously lies about it to make sure the family gets past a police stop. The truck itself breaks down on numerous occasions, and that’s all before they finally get to California and see what a returning Okie warned them about: the jobs were not as plentiful or as well-paid as advertised.
And yet, the Joads in their own way prevail. Tom Joad breaks parole to go West with his family, and there’s no debate about his crime. He really did kill a man. As such, he will do it again to the cop that kills “agitator” Casy. Henry Fonda in those days was a freelance actor in the days when the way to get work was to sign a studio contract and then do the movies the studio told you to make. Fonda liked the freedom to do as he saw fit when it came to selecting scripts so as to avoid being stuck in crappy movies, but then the part of Tom Joad came up, and he broke that personal rule to play Tom. And sure enough, he was stuck in a lot of crappy movies after that, but Fonda basically is Tom Joad. Fonda, like Tom Hanks, essentially played nice guys for most of his career, but there’s an edge to Tom Joad. Sure, he’s amicable, but he won’t stand for injustice. His final speech, before he leaves his family to become more symbol than man, the fellow who will be there whenever there’s a cop beating up a guy, is earnest and powerful. Someone has to represent these mistreated people, and Tom Joad is the perfect choice.
But the final word doesn’t go to Tom. It goes to his mother, and she strikes a tone that is relevant and compatible.
What does Ma Joad think? Well, she thinks that now that she’s seen people can be kind again after her experiences at the government camp with both the administrators and the other people staying there, that people like her and the rest of the Joads aren’t going anywhere. They’re a strong people, and they’ll take care of their own. Actress Jane Darwell took home an Oscar for her role, and she sells it well, showing a tearful Ma looking over some souvenirs before the family leaves Oklahoma for the last time, and finally finding strength despite the loss of so many members of her family to be that moral and motivational center the family needs. Maybe it was the kindness of the camp, or maybe it was her son’s own strength, but she’s the glue keeping the Joad family together, and if the Joads can survive this, they can survive anything.
True, neither Tom nor Ma mention anything like the “grapes of wrath” in their final speeches, but they sure got the spirit of it right. The powerful can only push the powerless around but so long. And sooner or later, it’ll be harvest time.
NEXT UP: We’ve got the first in a pair of Jack Nicholson’s best films with 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.