John Steinbeck wrote “The Grapes of Wrath” with a mixture of outrage and pity, a novel with a stark, almost Biblical warning embedded in every page.
John Ford’s classic film leans towards the sentimental, but he kept some of Steinbeck’s fury — just enough to make this, in my mind, the only Labor Day movie that matters.
We romanticize the past, and nobody was better at that than Ford. But in 1939, he was making a movie in the latter stages of a global financial crisis and the tail end of a national disaster — the Dust Bowl. He couldn’t have known this movie would stand the test of time and earn rebroadcasts every year when we kick back, crack open a cold one and forget what Labor Day was all about. He made a movie about his “present,” with oppression and predatory capitalism and widespread intense poverty and hardship, people starving while others lived lives as far removed from that as escapist screwball comedy millionaires.
I remember bawling my eyes out when my family watched it on TV as a child. But sentiment and tragedy aside, here’s what I’m taking away from watching it again this Labor Day.
We can’t confer sainthood on everyone who lived through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl that just made it worse.
Steinbeck’s book and Ford’s film reminds us there were plucky survivors and sad-eyed cynics who just gave up. There were good Samaritans and folks without a hint of pity for another person’s struggle.
We’ve always had an awful, self serving or self-deluded minority struggling to keep The People down.
There were miserly oligarchs who exploited a bad situation with no compunction or humanity. And there were always cops — state police and their heartless cheerleaders (right wing mobs) of the day — willing to back up the monied and keep “The People” in their place.
“What’d you do in the first place?”
“I talked back.”
Timely? Timeless. That what a movie that still has something to say to viewers 81 years after it’s release is.
Worth chewing on as you’re moved by Ma Joad’s (Jane Darwell) plight, that of her boy Tom (Henry Fonda), the very human, “touched” and Christ-like Jim Crasy (John Carradine) and everyone else we see in this film, crafted in a way that has haunted generations who knew something of the want depicted in it, and generations griping about having to wait on their delayed iPhone to come in.