“The Grapes Of Wrath” won two Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Supporting Actress Jane Darwell.
Even as early as the 1920s, Hollywood's desire to produce politically charged dramas with social messages tended to avoid ‘naming names,' so to speak. Rather than attack the corporate elite or assault bad government policies, social dramas tended to skim over past injustices, or exploit those of imperial regimes of older, less democratic powers. Extravagant European kings, sadistic princes, and brutal military assaults on innocent souls were classic targets for Hollywood, but with rare exceptions, the industry tended to play safe and avoid overtly critical projects that might annoy a regulatory government, and the financial elite that happened to own the studios.
Film scholar Joseph McBride – previously heard on Fox's excellent DVD for “How Green Was My Valley” – makes good use of the film's running time in examining why Fox's production chief Darryl F. Zanuck selected John Steinbeck's controversial novel that remained banned in several schools and states. Providing contrast and snapshots of the author Steinbeck is scholar Susan Shillinglaw, who succinctly traces the genesis of the novel through an early abandoned work and published extracts.
Zanuck had a history of personally producing message pictures – such as “Pinky” (racism), “Gentleman's Agreement” (anti-Semitism), and “Brigham Young” (religious persecution) – and he recognized from his years supervising topical gangster films at Warner Bros that controversy, when handled right, can equal both prestige, and box office profits. Made as Europe was being brutalized by Nazi Germany, the novel's ‘liberal-leaning' themes nevertheless survived the filmic transition, and “The Grapes of Wrath” still packs a punch in its scathing attack on luring the dispossessed to the west for cheap labor.
Both commentators do an excellent job in placing the film in its historical context, and McBride provides efficient bios for the cast and key filmmaking crew. The two also point out the novel's graphic ending which was dropped in favour of John Ford's own conclusion, followed by Darryl Zanuck's optimistic coda; with Fox' “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” DVD showcasing Ford's surviving director's cut and the final theatrical version, the “Grapes” disc supports the unique filmic union between the sensibilities of Ford and Zanuck.
Perhaps the greatest surprise for film fans may come from the truly marvelous performances by John Carradine and Eddie Quillan. Carradine's theatrical delivery is totally suitable for the role of a former preacher; and Quillan, better known for playing oddball characters for comic relief, grabs his small role as the near-mad remnant of his shattered family. Using long takes and Gregg Toland's remarkable cinematography, the powerful scenes reinforce John Ford's stature as a superb director of actors.
Fox's extras include several shopworn Movietone newsreels regarding the dustbowl trauma (the third newsreel is pretty dark), plus a collection of unused location shots with flubbed narration; in their raw state, the extra footage reinforces the horrible conditions described by Steinbeck, and elaborated by the DVD commentators.
The last goody is a 1995 “Biography” installment on producer Zanuck, which provides a good overview of his wild career, beginning as a writer for Warner Bros' Rin Tin Tin dog films, to one of the industry's most powerful and colourful co-founders. Mel Gussow, author of the entertaining authorized Zanuck biography “Don't Say Yes Until I Finish Talking” provides some narrative bridges via his interview, and while addressing Zanuck's philandering in Europe, the bio commits a major offense in attributing the discovery of CinemaScope completely to Zanuck; Fox had invested in early R&D work with the lens' creator decades earlier, and it was Fox executive Spyros Skouras who was its key champion of the widescreen format.
Finishing off the DVD is another newsreel, this time inter-cutting an intro from President Roosevelt with audience footage from the Oscars ceremony. A fascinating piece of ephemera, Roosevelt's anti-fascist rant places the Oscar-winning “Grapes” at a key point when Hollywood's support for European allies would later yield anti-fascist dramas and vicious B-level propaganda films. Closing with Oscar presentations, the newsreel captures actress Jane Darwell holding her golden statuette, along with a rare glimpse of esteemed composer/Fox music head Alfred Newman, holding his own Oscar (for “Tin Pan Alley”).
© 2004 Mark R. Hasan