I watched John Ford’s 1940 film version of The Grapes of Wrath tonight. It’s a fascinating film, what Roger Ebert calls a “a left-wing parable, directed by a right-wing American director,” in a review written before the DVD release. I’d never seen the film before, but the famous shot of the Joad family riding their battered, decrepit car into the destitute Okie transient camp in California has haunted me ever since I saw that scene in a clip tape we used in film courses at the University of Illinois. It’s a great shot (by Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland), and while I probably won’t be able to teach the whole film in my summer class, I’m trying to catalog a few film clips that I’d like students to see, and this shot beautifully captures Toland and Ford’s near-documentary style in Grapes.
I take Ebert’s point that the dialogue can seem a little preachy. Specifically, he mentions the scene in which Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) says good-bye to his mother near the end of the film (“Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there”), and I certainly recognized the speech as self-conscious (echoing similar lines by Eugene Debs), but I’m not sure that it’s entirely disproportionate to the scene or to Joad’s charismatic character.