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Fox Home Entertainment presents
"Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Where 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 the people are eating the stuff they raised, and living in the houses they build, I'll be there, too."
DVD ReviewIt's that rare film that can transcend its source material, and it may be apostasy to say so in English departments, but I'd argue that John Ford's beautiful 1940 film is even better than the John Steinbeck novel on which it was based. You may disagree; or you may think that comparing the film to the book is apples and oranges; but whatever you think, you've got to love the fact that The Grapes of Wrath, one of the best American films, is finally available on DVD. There's something so iconic about this movie that it's like it always existed, or always needed to—it's no surprise that both Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen were drawn to the material, lured as much by Ford's work as by Steinbeck's. And it's not just the director who is the draw here, either—this is a film that's written, shot, and acted exquisitely.
The familiar story: just out of prison, Tom Joad goes looking for his family in the middle of Oklahoma. But the land is arid, crop prices have crashed, and foreclosure is a certainty—as many other Middle Western families were, the Joads are hypnotized by the promise of California, by a land of milk and honey, and ample jobs picking fruit for decent, hard-working folk. All the generations of Joads pack into a rickety old jalopy, and head west, only to find at least as much heartache and trouble as they left behind.
The filmmakers' compassion for these characters runs deep; they may be from a low socioeconomic stratum, they may be uneducated and without much hope or promise of bettering their lot, but that's no reason to condescend to them. Nudge this portrait a few notches over, and you're smack dab in the middle of all of the worst redneck stereotypes, especially as the Okies light out for the Golden State: swimming pools, movie stars. Many, many things save the movie from being patronizing or maudlin, though.
First is the acting. This is probably the definitive Henry Fonda performance—he's the Tom Joad for all time. (Gary Sinise played the role in a Broadway adaptation not too long ago, and while Sinise is a good actor, inviting comparisons to Henry Fonda can only put you on the wrong side of the ledger.) His Tom is decent, compassionate, enraged; in many ways, the film is about the raising of his social conscience, but it's done without to much didactic social realism. (This is one of the ways in which Ford's telling improves on Steinbeck's, I'd argue.) Equally as good is Jane Darwell, as Tom's mother—Ma Joad is the archetypical screen earth mother, wise and knowing and loving and sad. Ford's roots in silent film are clear—in one scene, as the Joads prepare to leave their family home, Ma is discarding her possessions, for the less weight taken with them, the better. She gets rid of her souvenirs, picture postcards, and comes across a pair of earrings—she holds them up to her ears and looks in the mirror, the sadness of a lifetime on her face. No matter what sort of relationship you have with your parents, it's a moment that will make you want to tell your own mother that you love her, that she's beautiful.
And now let us praise Gregg Toland. With a relatively short list of films to his credit, Toland is probably the most important and most influential cinematographer in the history of Hollywood; he shot The Grapes of Wrath a year before he performed the same duties on Citizen Kane, and you'd be hard pressed to argue that his work on one of those pictures is better than the other. Ford's film is shot with the clarity and almost religious respect that you find in the portraits of Walker Evans, or the landscapes of Marion Post Wolcott; much of the film is like a moving-picture version of the best of the WPA. His actors' eyes positively glisten; and of course there's much beauty and poetry in the interaction of image and story, these gorgeously shot pictures of people with frying pans hanging off of the side of their jalopy, who cannot afford even penny candies for their children. Cinematography never got any better than this, and I cannot imagine that it ever will.
In our time of mistrust, especially about our government, it's heartening and even a little shocking to see the Joads land in a government camp as their best available salvation; and the unreconstructed liberal politics of this movie are very much out of fashion, especially in Tom choosing the cause over his family. But even if the politics don't set right with you, this is just about as great a movie as you'll ever see, and is just as rousing in its empathy for the American people as the hymn from which it draws its title. Glory, hallelujah.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+
Image Transfer Review: Fox has digitally restored the print of the film—the camera negative has disappeared, apparently—and it looks just exquisite. There's almost no grain at all, which may be overdoing it some; and the occasional print glitches are still evident. But Toland's work is sharp, saturated, and powerful—the faces are etched in light, and the landscapes occasionally may make you cry with their beauty.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: Gimme that old-time mono, it's good enough for me. Things sound fine, with occasional high levels of hiss.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, French with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring All About Eve, An Affair to Remember, The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, My Darling Clementine
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Joseph McBride and Susan Shillinglaw
Extras Review: The extras may not be everything one might hope for with a picture of this importance, but they have some virtues nonetheless. Sitting for a commentary track are Joseph McBride, a John Ford biographer; and Susan Shillinglaw, Director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University. They alternate, providing biographical detail on their respective subjects; there isn't much interplay between them, though. You'll learn more here about the film's context, but there isn't a tremendous amount of enlightenment. Their most spirited discussion is about whether or not the film is overly sentimental; Orson Welles thought so. On the other hand, Woody Guthrie called it the "best cussed picture I ever seen."
Also on the first side, with the feature, is the prologue that appeared with the film in the United Kingdom, a series of title cards filling in the audience on the historical facts of the Dust Bowl and the like. Flip that disc on over for the rest of the extras, starting with a segment from A&E's Biography, on Daryl F. Zanuck, the film's producer. He's the man who defined 20th Century Fox, and the documentary discusses the personal and professional life of the man whose career started with silent pictures and ran all the way up to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
You'll also find a restoration comparison, showing the good work that Fox did in concert with the Museum of Modern Art; and five vintage newsreels. Three are from 1934, at the height of the drought; one is a series of outtakes from that same period, showing government camps for migrant workers; and the last shows FDR addressing Hollywood in 1941, and is highlighted by Jane Darwell accepting her Academy Award for her performance in this movie—the presenters are Lunt and Fontanne. Finally, aside from an original trailer, there's a still gallery, with photos from on and off the set, and of publicity materials.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsFord, Steinbeck, Fonda, and Toland may be, in their various disciplines, four of the greatest artists of their time; and this film not only shows their enormous talents off to great advantage, but shows that at its best, film is a collaborative medium, as they seem to have had a catalytic effect on one another. The Grapes of Wrath is a beautiful, heartfelt, towering, crucial motion picture, and on this disc looks as stunning as it ever has, or ever will. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
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