Saturday, January 24, 2015

Would 'The Grapes of Wrath' Be Just As Good With Different Personnel?

"Seems like the government's got more interest in a dead man than a live one."

Tom Joad (Henry Fonda)

I am something of an amateur historian. There are times when I wish time travel was possible because there are certain events I really would like to see. Why? Because I believe it would give me a better understanding of what happened and why — but I've studied enough history to know that there are many more periods in human history that I would not want to witness. Besides, I know myself well enough to know that I might not gain as much from the experience as I like to think I would.

One period that I am glad I did not witness was the Great Depression. My grandparents lived through the Great Depression; my parents were children in the '30s and learned to be frugal by necessity. I heard plenty of stories from them about how hard life was for most folks. It was hard enough to live through the Great Recession — and lots of folks don't think it is over yet.

How would they have fared during the Great Depression, which was far worse?

"The Grapes of Wrath," John Steinbeck's brilliant novel about the Depression and the Joad family forced from their home in Oklahoma trying to find a new life in California, was brought to the screen 75 years ago today.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that the novel was "arguably the most effective social document of the 1930s."

If a movie ever had every possible advantage, "The Grapes of Wrath" was that movie. Its director was the legendary John Ford. It starred Henry Fonda and a boatload of talented co–stars whose faces you will probably recognize even if you have trouble remembering their names.

Heck, it was a story by Steinbeck.

And no story ever summed up the struggles people went through in the Depression as well as "The Grapes of Wrath." I have seen pictures that illustrated the Depression pretty well, but "The Grapes of Wrath" breathed life into such pictures.

And the movie brought the whole miserable experience of the Depression to life.

Look at the faces in "The Grapes of Wrath." You will see the same kind of vacant expression that those who have lived through great pain often have. It's the same expression that could be seen on the faces of the prisoners in the concentration camps when they were liberated by the Allies. Their tattered clothes, their rickety old truck that practically had to be pushed to California, their worn out belongings all spoke of people who had lived through great hardship.

Ford did a wonderful job of coaxing realistic performances out of his cast. In 1940, of course, the experience of the Depression was still fresh in everyone's minds. It might be more challenging to try to make a new version of the movie today.

Of course, I don't think a remake would be fortunate enough to have another Henry Fonda in the starring role or another John Ford behind the camera. Consequently, I cannot imagine a remake being anywhere near as good as the original.

But did "The Grapes of Wrath" depend entirely on the talents of its cast and director? It would still be a great story with another cast. The right casting could make all the difference; as long as no one tried to improve on Steinbeck, it could be almost as good as the original (I'm still not willing to concede that either Ford or Fonda could be improved upon — even if it was possible to improve on Steinbeck ... as if).

Al (O. Z. Whitehead): Ain't you gonna look back, Ma? Give the ol' place a last look?

Ma (Jane Darwell): We're goin' to California, ain't we? All right, then, let's go to California.

Al: That don't sound like you, Ma. You never was like that before.

Ma: I never had my house pushed over before. Never had my family stuck out on the road. Never had to lose everything I had in life.

And I can't think of any contemporary actress who could play Ma Joad as well as Jane Darwell did. Well, maybe Kathy Bates. That was an important role, you know, just as important as Henry Fonda's, although not as high profile. Still, she took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. The only other Oscar that went to "The Grapes of Wrath" was awarded to Ford for Best Director. Fonda was nominated for Best Actor but lost to Jimmy Stewart.

Clearly there was a lot of talent involved in the project.

Still, I keep coming back to the story, Steinbeck's story. If you put Ma Joad's words in some other actress' mouth, they would still be powerful words, powerful emotions set against the backdrop of the Dust Bowl. True, Darwell seemed perfect for the role of Ma Joad, but everyone else seemed perfect for their roles, too. Take the preacher, for example, Jim Casy, who was played by John Carradine. The Depression had altered his perception of things.
Tom (Henry Fonda): Ain't you the preacher?

Casy (John Carradine): Used to be. Not no more. I lost the call. But, boy, I sure used to have it. Oh, I used to get an irrigation ditch so squirmin' full of repentant sinners I pretty near drowned half of 'em. Not no more. I lost the spirit. I got nothin' to preach about no more, that's all. I ain't so sure of things. I asked myself, what is this here call(ed) Holy Spirit? Maybe that's love. Why, I love everybody so much, I'm fit to bust sometimes. So maybe there ain't no sin, and there ain't no virtue. There's just what people does. Some things folks do is nice, and some ain't so nice. And that's all any man's got a right to say. 'Course I'll say a grace if somebody sets out the food, but my heart ain't in it.

Perhaps nothing sums up the Depression–era struggles of people who didn't understand the events that swirled about them better than Tom Joad's discourse near the end — in his parting words to Ma.
"I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be ever'where, wherever you can look. 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. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready. An' when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise, and livin' in the houses they build, I'll be there, too."

It just seems to me that you couldn't go wrong with a Steinbeck story.