In 1936, John Steinbeck wrote a series of articles about the migrant workers driven to California from the Midwestern states after losing their homes in the throes of the depression: inclement weather, failed crops, land mortgaged to the hilt and finally taken over by banks and large corporations when credit lines ran dry. Lured by promises of work aplenty, the Midwesterners packed their belongings and trekked westward to the Golden State, only to find themselves facing hunger, inhumane conditions, contempt and exploitation instead. "Dignity is all gone, and spirit has turned to sullen anger before it dies," Steinbeck described the result in one of his 1936 articles, collectively published as "The Harvest Gypsies;" and in another piece ("Starvation Under the Orange Trees," 1938) he asked: "Must the hunger become anger and the anger fury before anything will be done?"
By the time he wrote the latter article, Steinbeck had already published one novel addressing the agricultural laborers' struggle against corporate power ("In Dubious Battle," 1936). Shortly thereafter he began to work on "The Grapes of Wrath," which was published roughly a year later. Although the book would win the Pulitzer Prize (1940) and become a cornerstone foundation of Steinbeck's Literature Nobel Prize (1962), it was sharply criticized upon its release - nowhere more so than in the Midwest - and still counts among the 35 books most frequently banned from American school curricula: A raw, brutally direct, yet incredibly poetic masterpiece of fiction, it continues to touch nerves deeply rooted in modern society's fabric; including and particularly in California, where yesterday's Okies are today's undocumented Mexicans - Chicano labor leader Cesar Chavez especially pointed out how well he could empathize with the Joad family, because he and his fellow workers were now living the same life they once had.
Having fought hard with his publisher to maintain the novel's uncompromising approach throughout, Steinbeck was weary to give the film rights to 20th Century Fox, headed by powerful mogul and, more importantly, known conservative Daryl F. Zanuck. Yet, Zanuck and director John Ford largely stayed true to the novel: There is that sense of desperation in farmer Muley's (John Qualen's) expression as he tells Tom and ex-preacher Casy (Henry Fonda and John Carradine) how the "cats" came and bulldozed down everybody's homes, on behalf of a corporate entity too intangible to truly hold accountable. There is Grandpa Joad (Charley Grapewin), literally clinging to his earth and dying of a stroke (or, more likely, a broken heart) when he is made to leave against his will. There is everybody's brief joy upon first seeing Bakersfield's rich plantations - everybody's except Ma Joad's (Jane Darwell's), that is, who alone knows that Grandma (Zeffie Tilbury) died in her arms before they even started to cross the Californian desert the previous night. There is the privately-run labor camps' utter desolation, complete with violent guards, exploitative wages, lack of food and unsanitary conditions; contrasted with the relative security and more humane conditions of the camps run by the State. And there is Tom's crucial development from a man acting alone to one seeing the benefit of joining efforts in a group, following Casy's example, and his parting promise to Ma that she'll find him everywhere she looks - wherever there is injustice, struggle, and people's joint success. In an overall outstanding cast, which also includes Dorris Bowdon (Rose of Sharon), Eddie Quillan (Rose's boyfriend Connie), Frank Darien (Uncle John) and a brief appearance by Ward Bond as a friendly policeman, Henry Fonda truly shines as Tom; despite his smashing good looks fully metamorphosized into Steinbeck's quick-tempered, lanky, reluctant hero.
Yet, in all its starkness the movie has a more optimistic slant than the novel; due to a structural change which has the Joads moving from bad to acceptable living conditions (instead of vice versa), the toning down of Steinbeck's political references - most importantly, the elimination of a monologue using a land owner's description of "reds" as anybody "that wants thirty cents and hour when we're payin' twenty-five" to show that under the prevalent conditions that definition applies to virtually *every* migrant laborer - and a greater emphasis on Ma Joad's pragmatic, forward-looking way of dealing with their fate; culminating in her closing "we's the people" speech (whose direction, interestingly, Ford, who would have preferred to end the movie with the image of Tom walking up a hill alone in the distance, left to Zanuck himself). Jane Darwell won a much-deserved Academy-Award for her portrayal as Ma; besides John Ford's Best Director award the movie's only winner on Oscar night - none of its other five nominations scored, unfortunately including those in the Best Picture and Best Leading Actor categories, which went to Hitchcock's "Rebecca" and James Stewart ("The Philadelphia Story") instead. Still, despite its critical success - also expressed in a "Best Picture" National Board of Review award - and its marginally optimistic outlook, the movie engendered almost as much controversy as did Steinbeck's book. After the witch hunt setting in not even a decade later, today it stands as one of the last, greatest examples of a movie pulling no punches in the portrayal of society's ailments; a type of film regrettably rare in recent years.
"Ev'rybody might be just one big soul - well it looks that-a way to me. ... Wherever men are fightin' for their rights, that's where I'm gonna be, ma. That's where I'm gonna be." - Woody Guthrie, "The Ballad of Tom Joad."
"The highway is alive tonight, but nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes. I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light, with the ghost of old Tom Joad." - Bruce Springsteen, "The Ghost of Tom Joad."
By the way, there is NO widescreen version of "The Grapes of Wrath." This DVD release exhibits the full frame aspect ratio of the original (1.33 to 1 ratio). Essentially, films made between 1917 and 1952 were filmed with a full frame aspect ratio. Standard televisions were proportioned 4:3 to copy the standard cinema ratio. Widescreen (Cinemascope, etc) was a gimmick introduced by Hollywood in the 1950s to compete with television. So if a film was made between 1917 and 1952 don't go looking for a widescreen version of it because there isn't any!