Judge Mike Rubino isn't letting a Caterpillar anywhere near his house.
"Seems like the government's got more interest in a dead man than a live one."—Tom Joad
In How the West was Won, the Prescott family travels westward with big dreams and bigger smiles, ready to take on this undeveloped land of opportunity called America. It's a colorful Cinerama epic from the '60s filled with plenty of stars and a handful of directors, including John Ford. Twenty years earlier, he made a little film about another family traveling to the West. In The Grapes of Wrath the Joad family is headed to California to survive, and not a single one of them has time to smile.
John Steinbeck's "big time" novel about the Great Depression and the dust bowls of Oklahoma in the 1930s was adapted into a big screen epic in 1940. It's considered by plenty of more important critics than yours truly to be among the best American films made. It also received two Academy Awards, one for Ford and one for actress Jane Darwell. So naturally, it deserves a double-sided re-issue DVD with a bonus bookmark. Sorry, I'll try not to get ahead of myself.
The Grapes of Wrath opens with Tom Joad (Henry Fonda, 12 Angry Men) being released from prison (he was in for "homi-cide!") and catching a ride back to the family farm. Along the way he runs in to Casy (John Carradine, Stagecoach), a disillusioned ex-preacher, and the two of them soon discover that the Joads have been kicked off their land. They eventually catch up with Ma (Jane Darwell), Pa (Russell Simpson), Grandpa (Charley Grapewin), and the rest of the kin; all of their Earthly possessions are strapped, piled, and crammed on to their beat down Hudson truck—their dignity is in there somewhere, too. The Joads just have to make it to California and they'll have work, and purpose, again.
So if you haven't figured it out by now, The Grapes of Wrath isn't a particularly fun film. It's a dark, depressing, and gritty piece of American proletarian storytelling. The film's also a masterfully directed classic.
John Ford has always been a master of the western terrains, and The Grapes of Wrath is no exception. He's got a little help this time from skilled cinematographer Gregg Toland, who would go on to photograph Citizen Kane. Together the two create scenes with the raw intensity of documentary news footage. From candlelit secret meetings to sweeping shots of traveling families and work camps, Ford is able to maintain a high level of harsh realism. He's also able to seamlessly blend the location shots with the soundstage ones, often a problem in these sorts of films. Most impressively, Ford is able to find moments in the faithful and occasionally melodramatic script to stamp with silence: one of the best scenes in the film is the quiet and heartbreaking inventorying of Ma Joad's possessions before the family leaves the farm. Ford's subtle touches may go unnoticed individually, but they work as the mortar holding the heavy bricks of this movie together.
Clearly, the movie is a winner by academic standards, even if it's not the sort of thing I'm going to turn to for a good time. For those who love the sad, dirty faces of the Joad family, I've got some bad news: you probably already own this DVD. Fox is just re-releasing the same edition of The Grapes of Wrath from 2004.
That DVD isn't bad by any means. It had a great restored video transfer and a serviceable stereo/mono soundtrack, plus a slew of supplements: there's a dry commentary track featuring an expert on Ford (Joseph McBride) and an expert on Steinbeck (Susan Shillinglaw); a documentary from A&E Biography about producer Darryl F. Zanuck; some Depression-era film reels; outtakes; stills; and a restoration comparison. Of course, to get to half of these features you have to take the disc out and flip it over, which is annoying. The only thing separating this release from the 2004 edition is the inclusion of a cardboard bookmark and an advertisement for more literary classics on film. I'm grateful for the bookmark, I'd been using DVDs as bookmarks for years!
If The Grapes of Wrath is considered to be one of the best films in history (and AFI ranks it at number 21 or 23 depending on the list), then it deserves a full-fledged special "dust bowl edition" with an actual second disc and new special features. In the meantime, if you're a fan of the film and haven't picked this DVD up, it's worth it. The acting is great, the direction is better, and the story…well it's a drag, but it's a classic, too.
Guilty of being a double-dipping-flipper-disc.
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