The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

(On TV, March 2018) Do American movies ever get as angry as does The Grapes of Wrath? Squarely taking on injustice in Dustbowl-Depression era, the film follows a family forced away from their Oklahoma fame and led to seek work in California fields. It really doesn’t go well for most of the movie, as the “Okies” family encounters death and capitalist exploitation at every turn, only reaching satisfaction of sorts in the hands of a decent government program. While definitely softened from the original Steinbeck novel (including reordering episodes around to provide a good ending), The Grapes of Wrath is still a scathing denunciation of the free market in a time of need. It’s almost continuously infuriating as the protagonist family gets knocked down again—fortunately, the stirring ending manages to make things a bit better, delivering a memorable speech about the resiliency of the people (and the importance of being there to right wrongs) as an epilogue. Visually, the black-and-white quality of the film’s images reinforces the poverty of their surroundings, washing out any colour in a muddle of despair. Still, director John Ford knew what he was doing, and the film is still powerful even today. Consider that The Grapes of Wrath was a major production by a big studio … why is it that movies never get as angry as this one, even at a time when social disparities are ripe for criticism? 

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