Inasmuch as I was born in 1946, I certainly did not see The Grapes of Wrath when it was released in 1940.Instead, I first saw this movie with my parents at a drive-in movie theater when I was around eight years old. To help me understand what was going on, my father told me about the Dust Bowl, a drought in the southern plains region of the United States where he grew up. That region included Oklahoma, where this movie begins. The drought was so bad that the skies were filled with dust, and crops withered on the land. He also said this was during the Great Depression.
For years after that, I assumed that somehow the two were causally related, that either the Great Depression caused the Dust Bowl, or the Dust Bowl caused the Great Depression. But while the economy can be affected by the weather, I eventually realized the two were independent of each other, that it was just cruel fate that had brought them together. Still, as we gather from other movies we have seen, it was the cities that were most affected by the Great Depression, while it was the farmers that were most affected by the Dust Bowl; for which reason, in his novel on which this movie was based, John Steinbeck used the entire first chapter to describe the emergence of this drought and the problems it caused the farmers. But while all that is now clear in my mind, I have yet to completely untangle the cultural significance of this movie.
The movie was produced two years after the formation of the House Un-American Activities Committee, its central focus being communism, regarded as a subversive scourge at the time. I remember how in the second grade, while we were saying the Pledge of Allegiance, the teacher admonished a couple of students who were talking, saying that they should be grateful they weren’t born in Russia. I remember my mother asking a next-door neighbor if she had been watching the McCarthy hearings. And when I started college in 1964, I had to sign an oath that “I was not now, nor ever had been, a member of the Communist Party.”
So, what does all this have to do with The Grapes of Wrath? Only that it makes the strongest case for communism of any movie I have ever seen. And yet, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, along with other awards as well. The movie was directed by John Ford, who made a lot of movies starring John Wayne, known for being staunchly anti-communist. And yet, there was never a falling-out between the two over this movie, with Wayne refusing to work with Ford ever again.
I have read that Steinbeck was as opposed to communism as much as he was to capitalism. Perhaps a qualification is in order. There is communism as it was envisioned by Karl Marx, and then there was Stalinist Russia, which presumed to call itself communist, but was nothing but totalitarianism, something Marx would have deplored. Judging by the novel and the movie, it would seem that Steinbeck’s opposition to communism was probably directed toward Russia under Joseph Stalin rather than the writings of Karl Marx.
In 1945, Eric Johnson, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, told the screenwriters, “We’ll have no more Grapes of Wrath, we’ll have no more Tobacco Roads, we’ll have no more films that deal with the seamy side of American life.” Tobacco Road, a novel by Erskine Caldwell, was also made into a movie directed by John Ford in 1941, and was the second feature being shown the night I saw The Grapes of Wrath. That movie wasn’t much, and it had nothing to do with communism, but the novel it was based on was as seamy as they come.
Steinbeck was not as seamy as Caldwell, but his novel had to be cleaned up a little when it was made into a movie. For example, in the novel, Tom Joad (played by Henry Fonda in the movie) knows that something is wrong when he arrives at his parents’ home and sees that the low gate across the front door was open. He explains to Reverend Jim Casy (played by John Carradine in the movie):
“If Ma was anywheres about, that gate’d be shut an’ hooked. That’s one thing she always done—seen that gate was shut.” His eyes were warm. “Ever since the pig got in over to Jacobs’ an’ et the baby. Milly Jacobs was jus’ out in the barn. She come in while the pig was still eatin’ it. Well, Milly Jacobs was in a family way, an’ she went ravin’. Never did get over it. Touched ever since….”
Eric Johnson went on to say, “We’ll have no more films that treat the banker as a villain.” The screenwriters Johnson was admonishing must not have been paying attention, because It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) was produced the next year. In that movie, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) is a villainous banker who keeps the $8,000 that Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) accidentally puts in his hands. George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), who runs the family business, the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, fears that he will be arrested for embezzlement when the bank examiner sees that the missing money cannot be accounted for. As a result, George attempts to commit suicide.
The banker in that movie is a single individual, which was usually the case in the old melodramas, where the banker threatens to foreclose on the widow who is late with her last mortgage payment. But in The Grapes of Wrath, the blame for what happens is dispersed. When Tom gets to his parents’ farm and finds the place deserted, except for Muley (John Qualen), he wants to know what happened. Muley explains that it all began with the “dusters,” year after year, blowing the land away, blowing the crops away. As a result, a man shows up, telling them they need to get off:
After what them dusters done to the land, the tenant system don’t work no more. They don’t break even, much less show profit. One man and a tractor can handle twelve or fourteen of these places. You just pay him a wage and take all the crop.
Muley pleads that his children aren’t getting enough food as it is. The man replies: “I can’t help that. I got my orders. They told me to tell you to get off.” He goes on to say it’s not his fault. Muley’s son asks whose fault it is. The man replies it’s nobody’s fault. It’s a company, the one that owns the land, the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company. Muley’s son says the company must have a president, one who knows what a shotgun is for. The man says it’s not his fault because the bank tells him what to do, and the bank is in Tulsa.
Have we now arrived at what Johnson was talking about, the banker who is the villain? No, for as the man points out, it’s not the bank manager’s fault because he is half crazy trying to keep up with the orders he gets from back East.
Muley asks, “Then who do we shoot?”
The man replies: “Brother, I don’t know. If I did, I’d tell you. But I just don’t know who’s to blame!”
What Johnson didn’t understand was that by having the banker be the villain, someone the hero can thwart by proving that he is guilty of fraud and having him arrested, the economic system itself is not being blamed. In It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Potter never is caught and punished for keeping the money, but he is thwarted nevertheless when the people of Bedford Falls donate enough to make up for the missing money so that George will not be charged with embezzlement. George is a good banker, whose Building and Loan works for the people, who in turn so love George and his bank that they give him money to show their appreciation.
Steinbeck, on the other hand, understood that if no one is responsible for the hardships people in his story have to suffer, and in particular, if there is no banker that can be blamed as the villain, then the economic system as a whole is to blame. And the solution for that is a revolution.
Muley is defiant. He talks about how his grandfather took up the land seventy years ago, how his father was born on that land, how members of his family died on it, and that makes it theirs, not a piece of paper with writing on it.
The next day a man driving a caterpillar tractor shows up to knock down Muley’s house. Perhaps this is the man Muley can shoot. He threatens the man on the tractor with a shotgun, until he sees that the man is his neighbor’s son, who says he has to do it because he needs the money, what with a wife, her mother, and two children to feed. And besides, he points out, if Muley shoots him, Muley will just end up being arrested and hanged for murder, while another man in a tractor will show up three days later and finish the job. Muley is defeated, lowering the shotgun as the tractor brings down his house. He tells Tom that the same thing has happened to all the farmers in the area, that they all have to get out.
No one in this movie uses any of the theoretical terms of Marxism, such as “communism,” “socialism,” “capitalist,” “bourgeoisie,” and “proletariat.”. The closest we come to that is later in the movie, when someone talks about “red agitators.” Tom Joad asks what a “red” is, but he doesn’t get an answer in the movie. In the novel, however, he does:
“Fella named Hines—got ’bout thirty thousan’ acres, peaches and grapes—got a cannery an’ a winery. Well, he’s all a time talkin’ about ‘them goddamn reds.’ ‘Goddamn reds is drivin’ the country to ruin,’ he says, an’ ‘We got to drive these here red bastards out.’ Well, they were a young fella jus’ come out west here, an’ he’s listenin’ one day. He kinda scratched his head an’ he says, ‘Mr. Hines, I ain’t been here long. What is these goddamn reds?’ Well, sir, Hines says, ‘A red is any son-of-a-bitch that wants thirty cents an hour when we’re payin’ twenty-five!’ Well, this young fella he thinks about her, an’ he scratches his head, an’ he says, ‘Well, Jesus, Mr. Hines. I ain’t a son-of-a-bitch, but if that’s what a red is—why, I want thirty cents an hour. Ever’body does. Hell, Mr. Hines, we’re all reds.’ ”
Though the words of Marxism are not used, yet the principles of Marxism are illustrated by things people do and say who, like Tom Joad, don’t even know what a red is.
When the movie opens, we see Tom walking down the road, on his way to the forty-acre farm where his parents live as sharecroppers. He stops just outside a short-order restaurant in time to see a truckdriver getting into his truck. Tom asks him for a ride, and the driver points to a sign in the lower part of the windshield saying, “No Riders Allowed,” and in smaller print below that, “Instructions of Owner.” Tom says, “Sure I see it. But a good guy don’t pay no attention to what some heel makes him stick on his truck.” Tom is suggesting that he and the truckdriver, both belonging to the working class, are basically good people, while it is the owner of the trucking company that the driver works for who is a heel. This is the first hint of a more general attitude of the movie, in which it is the capitalists, the rich men that own the banks, the businesses, and the farms, who make the rules and the laws that favor themselves, to the disadvantage of the workers they exploit, the proletariat. The truckdriver relents, allowing Tom to hitch a ride.
Tom has recently been paroled after serving four years for homicide. As we find out later, he was in a dancehall one night when some guy that was drunk stuck a knife into him. Tom hit him with a shovel, killing him. We see immediately that it was self-defense, and there were bound to be witnesses at the dance who could vouch for him, but Tom is convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to seven years in prison. A member of the bourgeoisie would have been cleared of any wrongdoing, but neither the police nor the courts care about justice when dealing with the lower classes. If there’s a disturbance, better to just lock someone up as a warning to the rest.
Later in the movie, when the Joads are on the road heading for California, Tom’s grandfather, Grandpa, dies of a stroke. They have to bury him just off the road. Tom writes a note, to be put with his grandfather, explaining what happened. Tom is afraid that someone might dig him up and think he was murdered. “Looks like a lot of times the government’s got more interest in a dead man than a live one,” he says.
The police become even more hostile later on, acting on behalf of the men that own large farms, arresting troublemakers who want to know in advance how much they will be paid to pick crops, breaking up strikes by providing armed escort for other workers to take their place. And when it’s not the police, it’s private cops, like the Pinkertons, though they are not mentioned by name. Toward the end of the movie, when Tom has to say goodbye to his mother, whom he refers to as “Ma” (Jane Darwell), he tells her that even if she never sees him again, he’ll be around in spirit, “whenever there’s a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there.”
Religion in this movie is minimized. Early in the movie, after Tom gets off the truck, he heads for his parents’ farm, but runs into Casy, who says he used to be a preacher, but no more. He says he lost “the call,” lost “the spirit.” He does not say that he is an atheist, but that is implied. No longer being religious, he also doubts all the morality that went with it:
So, maybe there ain’t no sin, and there ain’t no virtue. It’s just what people does. Some things folks do is nice, and some ain’t so nice. And that’s all any man’s got a right to say.
Later in the movie, after they bury Grandpa, Tom asks Casy to say a few words, even though he is no longer a preacher:
I’ll say ’em, make it short. This here old man just lived a life and just died out of it. I don’t know whether he was good or bad. It don’t matter much. Heard a fella say a poem once. And he says, “All that lives is holy.” Well, I wouldn’t pray just for an old man that’s dead, cause he’s all right. If I was to pray, I’d pray for folks that’s alive and don’t know which way to turn. Grandpa here, he ain’t got no more trouble like that. He’s got his job all cut out for him, so cover him up and let him get to it.
Except for the last sentence, an obligatory gesture about Grandpa having a “job” to do in some afterlife, whatever that would be, this is a secular prayer.
In movies, women are usually portrayed as being more religious than men, so it is hardly surprising that we hear Ma saying grace before a meal or saying “Thank God” when she sees Tom for the first time, but that is about it. No one expresses any belief in a God that will help them in their troubles.
As is well known, Karl Marx was an atheist, famously saying that religion is the opiate of the masses, used by capitalists to keep the proletariat in their place, promising a reward in Heaven so that they need not fret about how things are for them here on Earth. The absence of religion in this movie fits with its communist message.
The extended Joad family, over ten of them, including Casy, manage to pile into a truck and become “Okies,” refugees from Oklahoma and surrounding states during the Dust Bowl who headed to California, looking for work. They do so on the basis of a handbill saying that 800 workers are needed to pick crops. But when they stop at a camp, they find out what’s in store for them from a man who has been through it already, whose wife and two children starved to death, who says he’s going back where he came from to starve to death and get it all over with at once. He explains about the handbills:
All right, this man wants 800 men. So, he prints up 5,000 of them handbills and maybe 20,000 people sees them. And maybe two-three thousand starts moving west account of this handbill. Two-three thousand folks that’s crazy with worry heading out for 800 jobs! Does that make sense?
Yes, it makes sense. It is an illustration of Marx’s concept of the reserve army of the unemployed. The capitalist likes it when there are a lot of unemployed people, especially when there aren’t any programs like unemployment compensation or food stamps provided by a socialist government. These people are desperate, will work for subsistence wages doing dangerous work for long hours. Those that have jobs are kept in line by this army, fearing that if they cause trouble, they will be fired and thrown into the ranks of the unemployed themselves.
Although I certainly was never in dire straits like the people in this movie, I have been through a version of it myself. And what I learned is that if you are thinking of going into a line of work and wondering about the prospects, never ask the people who do the hiring. They always say they need lots of workers in their industry, for which you can make good money. They want that reserve army of the unemployed to pick from. Instead, ask those who are employed in that industry, or better, those who used to be so employed. Then you’ll get the truth.
The implications of that reserve army of the unemployed are realized. The Joads move from camp to camp, hassled by the police, confronted by citizens that don’t want any more Oakies, at odds with other workers when the Joads unwittingly become strikebreakers. Casy is with those on strike. He tries to explain to Tom the way things are, but Tom cannot get past what is good for him and his family, saying he can’t worry about others. Casy says he’s going to have to learn things for himself.
While they are talking, some deputies show up, intent on beating up the strikers and running them off. One of them hits Casy with a pick handle, killing him. Tom grabs the pick handle and hits the deputy that killed Casy, killing him in return. Then Tom gets hit in the face. A posse forms, looking to find a man with a bruise on his face, so they can lynch him. Tom plans on leaving, but Ma begs him not to, saying that the family is breaking up:
There’s a whole lot I don’t understand. But going away ain’t going to ease us. There was a time we was on the land. There was a boundary to us then. Old folks died off and little fellas come. We was always one thing. We was the family. Kind of whole and clear. But now we ain’t clear no more. They ain’t nothing that keeps us clear. Al, he’s hankering and gibbeting to be off on his own. Uncle John’s just dragging around. Your pa’s lost his place. He ain’t the head no more. We’re cracking up, Tom. There ain’t no family now. And Rosasharn [a contraction of “Rose of Sharon”], she’s gonna have her baby, but it won’t have no family. [Rosasharn’s husband Connie has recently abandoned her.] I been trying to keep her going, but… And Winfield. What’s he gonna be this way? Growing up wild, and Ruthie too. Just like animals. Got nothing to trust. Don’t go, Tom. Stay and help. Help me.
Tom agrees to stay, but the Joads have to sneak out of the camp that night.
They just barely make it to another camp. But this one is different. There is a sign saying “Department of Agriculture,” indicating that it is sponsored by the Federal Government, under the auspices of the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt, socialist programs intended to help people like the Joad family. It is a clean place to live, with toilets and bathing facilities. This is quite different from a previous camp. At that place, when Rosasharn picked up what was left of a magazine when she and Ma entered the shack where they were to live, Ma told her to save the magazine because it might be useful later, implying the pages might serve as toilet paper.
At this nice camp, the residents elect their own cops and make their own laws. Police from outside cannot come in without a warrant. Only here do the laws work for people like the Joads. As Tom passes a faucet, he sees there is water running out of it. There is a sign telling people to turn off the water when not using it. Tom turns off the water. This is the only sign that Tom has had any respect for in this movie.
They find jobs at a farm paying decent wages. However, the farmer warns them that some ruffians are going to try to start trouble at the dance being held at the camp, causing a riot, which will allow deputies to enter without a warrant and run off everybody. They plan on doing this because the government camp gives people ideas, showing them how things might be better, turning them into red agitators.
The residents in the camp manage to avoid trouble, but cops are still looking for Tom for killing a deputy, and he realizes he has to leave. Ma wakes up as he is leaving, and he stops to talk to her. Previously, Tom had told Casy and the strikers that his family was all he could worry about. As indicated above, Ma has been fretting about the family breaking up, and now she is worried that if something happens to Tom, she won’t know about it. But now Tom thinks he understands what Casy was talking about, that there is a larger family, of the people:
Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. Fella ain’t got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul. The one big soul that belongs to everybody…. Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready. And when people are eating the stuff they raise, living in the houses they build, I’ll be there too.
And so, instead of the rugged individualism that capitalism is based on, where each man seeks after his own self-interest and that of his family, Tom is beginning to realize we should treat everybody as part of the family of mankind.
At the end of the movie, Ma seems to be in sympathy with what Tom was talking about:
Rich fellas come up, and they die, and their kids ain’t no good, and they die out. But we keep coming. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out. They can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, cause we’re the people.
In the novel, this idea of the larger family of mankind is physically illustrated in a vivid way. Rose of Sharon’s baby is stillborn, and she is ill. For a while, what’s left of the Joad family lives in a boxcar, but it has been raining so hard that it starts flooding, so they have to leave. They reach a barn, where they find a boy and his father, who is starving to death. Rose of Sharon is so wet and cold that Ma worries she’ll die if she doesn’t find a way to dry her off. The boy brings her a comforter to cover her. Rose of Sharon removes all her clothes and, under the comforter, is completely naked.
The boy tells how his father hasn’t eaten in six days and now can’t hold down solid food, saying he need soup or milk. Ma and Rose of Sharon look into each other’s eyes and exchange a knowing look. Ma gets everyone besides Rose of Sharon and the old man to go into the tool shed to give them privacy:
For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comfort about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. “You got to,” she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. “There!” she said. “There.” Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.
It is understandable that this could not be shown in a movie made in 1940. What is less understandable is that John Ford was not blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. I suppose that is because, unlike the Hollywood Ten, he did not refuse to testify. Apparently, it was all right to make a movie promoting communism, just as long as you didn’t snub the Committee.
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