Optimism in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath

An exhibition of fundamental American optimism, The Grapes of Wrath follows and exemplifies the resilience of the lower class over the hardships of class prejudice. Director John Ford blends the harsh austerity of John Steinbecks 1939 political novel with his own strong populist and republican beliefs, leaning on the genuinity of his actors and of the camera to sculpt a simple and believable interpretation. Ford uses the severe candor of life during the Great Depression as an operative device in his film; using its simplicity and soft sadness as an element to aid in imitation.

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The Grapes of Wrath teems with examples of Fords affinity for visual expression. Unreliant on verbal cues as a means of communication, Ford illustrates the specific characteristics of each of his characters solely by the way that they exist; how they stand, their reaction to the land as they pass through. For example, Ma Joads cleaning up of the old house is shown without dialogue, but her careful discovery of a forgotten pair of earrings and subsequent wistful longing for an easier past could hardly be better expressed with words.

The Joads journey across the country is made predominantly in silence, but depicted all the more impactfully because of this focus on the actors physical and internal emotions as opposed to those spoken. Fords choice incorporation of many of these elements is indicative of a deep understanding and connection that he felt with the extraordinary qualities of the ordinary American. He intentionally hones in on this awareness, focusing on the genuine and simplistic facets of the story to achieve a more realistic film.Specifically, Ford depends hugely on the actors and the effect that purely their acting can have on the film without concentrating too much on screenplay or cinematic elements. He hires an all-star cast of performers, but establishes that they are all picturesque as well as plausible. There is John Qualen as Mulee, a fugitive on his own land, John Carradine as Casey, the preyed upon preacher, and Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, the wise, matriarchal figure who defines the movie more so than Tom Joad ever could. These faces appear to belong so naturally with their characters that the audience sympathizes all the more easily with the family and with the story in general.

Each actor worked with Ford to craft a believable persona for themselves which they carry throughout the whole movie. In the scene in which Grandpa Joad dies, lines such as Looks like a lot of times the governments got more interest in a dead man than an alive man and ..if I was to pray Id pray for folks thats alive and dont know which way to turn! and the delivery of these lines work to evoke in the audience a sympathetic and very personal feel, which resonates throughout the entire film. Ford repeatedly uses this technique of subtle undertones to craft a theme and moral that is not necessarily evident without some scrutiny. Similarly, Ford, along with his cinematographer Gregg Toland, fuse multiple aspects of cinematography such as less lighting, which achieve the look of a barren Oklahoma and Eden-looking California, or of wide-angle lenses coupled with deep-focus shooting, which make the faces of the Joads seem malnourished and forced in close-up, and depicts the true breath of the Oklahoma landscape. Fords choice to incorporate solely match-lit scenes or simply naturally dark lighting functions to create a plausible portrayal of the realities of Great Depression era America. By letting the scenes unfold with what would be natural lighting should the scenes occur in real life, Ford creates yet another pathway for the audience to allow themselves to be truly swept away by the film.

Toland was unique more in the degree to which he pushed expressionistic lighting effects in studio pictures for dramatic stories, utilizing the grainy nature of black-and-white picture to mimic and capture the coarse quality of pictures taken during the Great Depression in an effort to create a documentary style imitation of those pictures.Ultimately, the film hopes to emulate the realities of the families living through a time when ones basic societal economic system is jeopardized. Capitalism is dependent upon a free market, wage labor, and privately owned businesses, as opposed to state-owned ones. In The Grapes of Wrath, we see exactly how capitalism failed the Joads their farm when they are unable to produce crops due to the drought. They cannot pay the bank what they owe for their land nor the landlords what they owe for the house and land they lease. Steinbeck (and Ford) criticize the economic system that drove farmers to homelessness and extreme poverty, but do not advocate entirely anti-capitalist beliefs; rather, offer a corrective view of capitalism seeking to re-humanize the modes of production and to reinforce the idea that people should maintain basic human rights within an industrialized economy.

Alternatively, they do not completely promote communist beliefs (though to do so would not have been so condemned as it would post-World War II), but instead propose a reconciliation between the capitalistic, mechanized cities of America following the Second Industrial Revolution and the majority of the countrys more traditional, agrarian population. Additionally, Ford goes on to contradict Steinbeck in his adaptation of the novel by illustrating his faith in the will of the American people to adapt and sustain, a concept immortalized by the final, added scene of the film wherein Ma Joad delivers her famous speech. She states But we keep a-comin. Were the people that live. Cant nobody wipe us out. Cant nobody lick us. Well go on forever, Pa. Were the people This, along with the meticulous inclusion of a variety of cinematic elements, effectively summarizes Fords intended theme of the movie: that although the conditions in America remain uncertain and oftentimes flawed, it is the grit and resilience of the working American people that epitomizes the American Dream, and which allows them the elasticity to drive forward and survive even when the very land they stand on is pulled out from under them.

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