Produced by Darryl Zanuck, The Grapes of Wrath is a film with a simple plot, covering the timeless issues of social justice, inequality of wealth, and famine. The film follows the Joad Family and their friends as they migrate westward from their parched farms and destroyed lands to the opportunity of California. The family has heard there are jobs to be filled in The Golden State. The novel gave rise to some issues people at the time were hesitant to acknowledge such as the conditions of migrant camps along the route from the Dust Bowl to the coast and broader issues revolving around The Great Depression. I will seek to prove that all major parties involved in the making of the film Darryl Zanuck, John Ford, John Steinbeck and Nunnally Johnson wanted to introduce the country to a different kind of film, one which was often times hard to look at, holding up a mirror to a society theyd come to the theater to escape.
Proceeding the acquisition of the rights to the book from any major Hollywood studio, protests were already being staged throughout the states portrayed in the novel such as Oklahoma and Illinois. As remembered by Rudy Behlmer from the Alex Film Society,it was banned in several places ordered burned in East St. Louis Illinois, attacked by an Oklahoma congressman, and condemned by the California Chamber of Commerce (1). Protesters went as far as to demand a boycott of all future 20th Century-Fox releases. On top of this controversy, The Agricultural Council of California in tandem with the Associated Farmers of California took out ad space in rural newspapers calling for [the] boycott of a novel which people suspected Hollywood executives had their eyes on (1).
Zanuck, unintimidated by the acts of protest, bought the screen rights for $70,000 and quickly sought out talent to carry out the job. Nunnally Johnson was his first hire who was assigned as both an associate producer and screenwriter. Nunnallys take on the film is more hopeful than the novel, as he is quoted saying the only real change I made – and I had to make it – was in the ending. There had to be some hope (1). Riddled with controversy from the start, Zanuck and Ford used a pseudonym for the film, Highway 66. The production was referred to by this title in the script and by those on-set.
Steinbecks novel left people in the Dust Bowl feeling misrepresented as it cast them as desperate, living an archaic way of life. Oklahoma Congressman Lyde Bored went as far to call the book a lie, a black, infernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind (2). No one involved with the making of the film seemed to want to cause harm, but instead, to begin a conversation. This is not entirely true though, as Zanuck did encourage the controversy by perpetuating the argument over censorship, as he thought it would bring the project notoriety.
I will begin by talking about John Steinbeck, a beloved and prolific author responsible for some of the most recognizable pieces of social-political work such as Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, and of course, The Grapes of Wrath, all of which were carried from page to screen. Steinbeck was known to have a knack for the way people spoke, picking up phrases and jargon as he observed each new group of people. In 1962, just six years prior to his young death, Steinbeck was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature for his revealing humor and keen social perception (5). Born in California, Steinbeck would build a career writing critically about American life, specifically west-coast living.
Steinbeck had the particular skill of empathizing with a way of life foreign to his own. His work was usually more interested in the layman world rather than that of the bourgeoisie. In Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck pens the story of two migrant workers who move to California looking for work during the Great Depression. This premise, which is strikingly similar to The Grapes of Wrath, remained the main lane Steinbeck traveled in, infrequently deviating beyond these fields of interest. Regardless, he did groundbreaking work in these fields, stirring controversy with nearly every release. His focus on the underdog often teetered into sympathy which the average American reader was unwilling to grapple with. Author Warren French, in his book Filmguide to Grapes of Wrath, claims Steinbecks novelprovided him a perfect vehicle for exploiting Americans guilt about social inequality (2). Despite this, he was accused on multiple occasions of misrepresenting the groups of people he chose to write about.
Director of Wrath, John Ford, had similar controversy surrounding his name, as he was one of the pioneers and frequent users of the western genre. Fords filmography is cluttered with stories of nameless Native Americans and glamorized cowboys typical of the genre at the time, which has in modern years been properly problematized. Despite the convoluted politics surrounding his work, it isnt to say that Ford was a man unconcerned with justice or morality. In fact, he regarded himself an Irish Rebel indebted to the lower class and hellbent on doing them justice through accurate representation and relevant issues. He is quoted saying, I like, as a director and spectator, simple, direct, frank films. Nothing disgusts me more than snobbism, mannerism, technical gravity and, most of all, intellectualism (5). For this reason, Ford made films that were accessible to all, not veiled in some ambiguous artistic cloak.
Ford considered himself an Irish rebel due to the influence his heritage had on him. He sympathized with the Irish and their history, particularly an era when the population was living under British occupation for 100s of years. According to Joseph McBride in his biography Searching for John Ford, Ford despised cops for this reason (6). He was particularly sympathetic to the years his ancestors spent in famine, citing that as a reason he moved forward with the screen transition of Wrath (6). But, when Wrath was released, theatergoers at the time were more used to escapism and grand-scale action so Wrath served as a change of pace. Not to say that Ford was alone in picking at the threads of society the same year Wrath was released, Charlie Chaplin captured the world with the harsh and reflexive The Great Dictator. Ford though preferred a more subdued style, letting the content take center stage. This is very much the case with Wrath. The cinematography seems to be the only imposition of style into the story. Ford was not the only confusing and ever-changing person behind the scenes of Wrath.
Darryl Zanuck, similarly to Ford, welcomed controversy. And, when involving Wrath, Zanuck sought it out. After scooping the rights to the novel for $70,000 just a week after publication, Zanuck assured the public, to their dismay, that the film will, in fact, enter production and be released (3). As I briefly covered above, protests were not only invoked by the book but also by talks of a film adaption. After the Studios bidding war, which the public assumed was a stunt to grab the rights and shelve the book, Zanuck proudly scoffed, Show me the man who can prove I would pay $75,000 to throw away a book and Ill make a movie of him. (3).
Zanuck did not act in pure virtue though. It was suspected at the time that Zanuck was hungry for a hit. Following a successful but turbulent stint at Warner Bros., he left the Studio due to financial dissatisfaction and was in search for new work (2). It was not long before he hunkered down at 20th Century Pictures where he got to work on what would be his most discussed adventure The Grapes of Wrath. Zanuck was no stranger to stirring the pot. He incited public outpour in the past with films such as Ham and Eggs at the Front, which featured a character in blackface, and The Fugitive from a Chain Gang, which portrayed the inhuman conditions of prison and sympathized with an outlaw on the run. So, when it came to Wrath, it was only proper that Zanuck leaned into the controversy surrounding it.
Now that we have a general understanding of the main players in the saga of Wrath from page to screen, I will now further discuss my findings. Interestingly, Zanuck and Ford took careful consideration of the story and representation despite appearing brandish to the press. Before production began, Zanuck sought to find truth in the Steinbecks desperate portal of the Okies. Zanuck commissioned private investigators to travel slightly east, along the active path of migration. He demanded to know the true conditions of the migrants. They were instructed to go to migrant camps and take notes on what they saw. To his surprise, the investigators came back with a startling revelation the conditions at the camps were drastically worse than displayed in the novel. Knowing this, Zanuck felt more comfortable and compelled to push ahead with the production of Wrath. He was quick to cue in the public on this fact, attempting to ease outrage and encourage anticipation (3).
In the lead up to production, with pre-production nearly under wraps, Zanuck and Ford demanded tight-lipped privacy. Multiple measures were taken to ensure the contents of the script and chosen locations were kept secret. Nunnally penned the script under the name Highway 66 and until the product was finished, only three copies were distributed each time: one for Zanuck, one for Ford, and one for Henry Fonda. The copies were to be kept to themselves (2). Once production began, it was also veiled in secrecy. Every copy of the script was collected at the end of each shooting day. Not to mention, a large a portion of the budget was dedicated to replicating the Dust Bowl in the back of a stage lot so the media was unaware of what they were shooting (1). They even went against code formalities and left certain on-location sets unnamed.
Much of the reason Zanuck and Ford were insistent on secrecy was due to the brutality of the story they were trying to tell. The public, along with the MPAA, demanded a softer version of Steinbecks novel, one that dismissed much of the profanity in favor of adventure and companionship (3). Despite this desire, the two did not want to dull the cruelty of the novel and promised Steinbeck they would do no such thing. Within the week before Zanuck bought the rights, Steinbeck proclaimed, I am quite sure no picture company would want this new book whole [but] it is not for sale any other way (2). Due to Steinbecks trepidations regarding the adaption and the softening of its content, Zanuck promised him there would be no dodging the grim truth of the book. Following the release, Steinbeck was quick to give his opinion: It looks and feels like a documentary film and certainly it has a hard, truthful rind, No punches were pulled. Zanuck has more than kept his word. He has a hard, straight picture.
Despite Steinbecks satisfaction and the financial success of the film, the picture was met with polarized critics and fans. Grace Liechinger, in her Wall Street Journal review of the film, claimed it to be,a nihilistic assault on a childs or parents sensibilities. But, in the same vein, many also recognized the importance from its release. In his 1940 review of the film featured in The Evening Herald, Jimmy Starr acclaimed Wrath to bestinging like a dramatic lash across the face John Steinbeck [slurs] at California with Hollywoods most controversial drama (9). Another critic credited the film to a candid presentation of the horrors the migrants faced. Most notably, critic Frank S. Nugent had it right when he claimed Wrath, from the moment of its release, claimed a spot on the shelf along the most vital pictures ever released (10).
No matter which angle you look at it from, the film inspired conversation and influence that was rare. In nearly every review published from the release, critics were compelled to talk about the loyalty to the content of the book, whether for good or bad. They also frequently mentioned the controversy that ensued during the bidding war. Critics rarely distanced the film from Steinbeck, as most mentioned and spent time covering the source material and anecdotes from the adaption, as well as credited him with the stark and critical notions of American society which made its way to screen. From reading and assembling reviews, interviews, and books about the subject, it appears Zanuck and Ford wanted to accurately turn a novel concerned with social justice into a film with similar consideration. And, despite the circus that ensued, they delivered a film that was both conscientious of its subjects and the audience. As noted in The Great Film Series, Paul G. Rotha & Richard Griffith are quoted from their book The Film Till Now acknowledging that for the first time, millions of Americans saw their faces, and their fate, on the entertainment screen (8).
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