Judge Patrick Naugle praises Fox's efforts to bring one of cinema's most important films to DVD.
"Now Tom said 'Mom, wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy
One of Fox's oft-requested titles is the 1940s dustbowl epic The Grapes of Wrath. For years fans clamored for this sixty-year-old classic to be released on DVD. With a final restoration completed on the print and the film looking better than ever, The Grapes of Wrath finally arrives to the digital age as part of Fox's "Studio Classics" line.
Facts of the Case
The Grapes of Wrath follows the plight of the Joad family, sharecroppers pushed off their Oklahoma farmland by bankers during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Literally bulldozed away from their home, the Joads, including the newly paroled Tom (Henry Fonda, On Golden Pond), stronghold Ma (Oscar winner Jane Darwell, The Ox-Bow Incident), down and out Pa (Russell Simpson, Oklahoma!), feisty grandpa (Charley Grapewin), among others, and the town's ex-preacher, Casy (John Carradine, The Howling), head towards California with a shaky promise from a flyer touting jobs working in the orchards. As they make their way across harsh terrain, the Joads find themselves with little to eat, an automobile that is falling apart, and a quiet desperation seeping through their souls.
For my dollar there is no other movie as solidly rooted in Americana as director John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath, based upon the classic novel by John Steinbeck. Here is a movie with a message—slightly heavy handed? Yes, but still a powerful film about the human spirit and an era that most of us will never fully appreciate.
John Steinbeck was a writer for the common man; his novels and books include "Of Mice and Men," "Cannery Row," "The Pearl," "East of Eden," and "Tortilla Flat," to name a few. Each book dealt in the working class—his most well known work is most likely "The Grapes of Wrath" and its endearing, classic character Tom Joad. After its publication in 1939, Steinbeck would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in writing, further proof of his importance in American literature.
The history of The Grapes of Wrath's eventual filming is one almost as intriguing as the book itself. The novel portrayed banks and corporate farms as "the enemy." The Associated Farmers of California so despised the idea of "The Grapes of Wrath" being filmed that they attempted a boycott of Fox Studios. Even Steinbeck found his safety in jeopardy. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck (How Green Was My Valley, The Longest Day) snatched up the book rights only a year after its initial publishing and quickly enlisted top director John Ford (Rio Grande, Fort Apache) to helm the picture. Though Ford originally wanted Don Ameche or Tyrone Power as Tom Joad, he finally settled on Henry Fonda in a star-making performance; Fonda was eventually nominated for an Oscar for his role as the film's protagonist. When it was all said and done, The Grapes of Wrath ended up being nominated for seven Academy Awards (Best Picture, along with Ford's The Long Voyage Home), Actor, Film Editing, Sound, and Writing) and won two (Best Supporting Actress Jane Darwell as Tom's mother and Ford for Best Director). In what seems to be a rarity, even Steinbeck was happy with the result. In the ensuing years, it's become known as a cinematic classic, a film that is still important six decades after its release.
Does all of that add up to a great movie? You bet your tin shack it does. There is great power in Ford's film, a movie that sides with the "Okies" and their plight as they head west for greener pastures, even though what lay ahead may not be much better than what they've left behind. The performances in The Grapes of Wrath are all uniformly excellent, considering the era. Henry Fonda gives us one of the screen's most memorable characters in Tom Joad—he is an everyman struggling to find a place in a world that doesn't seem to want him. Jane Darwell's Ma Joad is equally as remarkable, a woman fighting to keep her family together even as their car and health fall apart. John Carradine is wonderful as Casy, the preacher who has lost his faith but not his will to survive. Though some of the acting teeters on theatrical (including Charley Grapewin's over-stimulated Grandpa), overall these are performances that, after sixty years, still draw in and envelop viewers. Just as compelling is Gregg Toland's cinematography, enhanced by the black and white palette that makes the barren dustbowls and labor camps all the more coldly desolate.
Yet the real greatness of The Grapes of Wrath is that it hasn't lost its edge and social message. Its ideas about loneliness, isolation, and how injustice can roam free—especially among the middle-to-lower class—ring true even more so in today's stormy economic climate and deceitful government. Even though the novel's original ending is forsaken for a slightly more upbeat one, Ma Joad's words of survival still have grace that moves the soul. Steinbeck's novel and Ford's film are works caught in time, written and filmed portraits of people pushed to their limits…and surviving.
The Grapes of Wrath is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Thankfully, Fox has taken the time to digitally restore this print of the film even though the original camera negative was lost years ago, and the results are startling—though the picture may not be as crisp as Citizen Kane, The Grapes of Wrath still retains a fantastic, beautiful appearance enhanced by the solid blacks and whites throughout. There are a few scenes that seem overly dark, but that's really the only major complaint I have—overall the transfer is free of any nicks, scratches, or dirt. New and old fans of the film certainly have something to smile about when they see this print.
The soundtrack is presented in a very appropriate Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono and a new 2.0 Stereo sound mix, both in English. The mono mix is the way to go—it gives what is most likely the best representation of the original viewing. The stereo mix gives only a slightly more channel separation, but not by much. Otherwise, either of these tracks will do fine. The dialogue, music, and effects are almost always well heard and clear of most major distortion and hiss. Also included on this disc are English and Spanish subtitles, as well as a Dolby 1.0 track in Spanish.
Though The Grapes of Wrath isn't a jam packed collector's disc, it is a fine edition to Fox's "Studio Classics" line. On the feature film side of the disc there is a commentary track by film scholar Joseph McBride and Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw. This is a very good commentary track, giving fans a glimpse into the film's historical context and how it became adapted for the silver screen. Though it tends to be slightly slow at times (more scholarly than entertaining), it's still worth a listen for those who want more background on both Steinbeck and the film.
Flipping over to side two is a great documentary on producer Darryl F. Zanuck titled "Darryl F. Zanuck: 20th Century Filmmaker," which was originally produced for A&E's Biography channel. There is a lot of information to be found in this feature, including some stories and info on Zanuck's work on The Grapes of Wrath. The other well produced feature on this disc is a restoration comparison, showing how Fox cleaned up the print into the worthy condition it's in now.
Also included on this disc are three "Movietone" drought news reports from 1934 (which give viewers an insight into the real Depression), a featurette on President Roosevelt and his support of the motion picture industry ("Roosevelt Lauds Motion Pictures at Academy Fete"), a few news outtakes, a still gallery, an original UK prologue, and a theatrical trailer for the film.
If you haven't had the chance to check out The Grapes of Wrath, now is the opportune time. Fox has done an admirable job at making sure the video and audio transfers are in top notch shape. With a plethora of extra features to peruse through and a low list price around $10, this first ever DVD edition of The Grapes of Wrath is well worth any film buff's money.
The Grapes of Wrath is a must see by anyone who's ever struggled through hard times—and that's everyone!
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• Commentary Track by Film Scholar Joseph McBride and John Steinbeck Scholar Susan Shillinglaw
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