A poor Midwest family is forced off of their land. They travel to California, suffering the misfortunes of the homeless in the Great Depression.
Year 2, Film #49
THE REVIEW: What a difference ten years makes. The Grapes of Wrath is the second film this Oscar month and was nominated for Best Picture in 1940. Watching All Quiet on the Western Front yesterday (which was released a decade earlier in 1930), many of my comments were on having to look past the old filmmaking style to see the good in the film. With The Grapes of Wrath, there’s still a clear difference from a contemporary film, but the gap is narrowed considerably meaning it’s much easier to focus on the story and message of the film.
While there aren’t many notes to make on the style of the film, it doesn’t really matter. The sole purpose of the film is the story. Everything revolves around the story and that’s the only thing that can make the film entertaining. It might be a bit blasphemous to say, but, most of the time a film needs more than just a great story. The Grapes of Wrath follows the Joad family from Oklahoma on their way to California to find work and a living. It shows the struggles and obstacles the Joad’s have to overcome just to get by. Led by eldest son Tom Joad (Henry Fonda), the film paints an extremely vivid picture of what exactly this entails. Along the way the family is faced with death, riots, and other poor families begging for any scraps of food they have to share. While the Great Depression is never explicitly or implicitly mentioned, it’s very clear that this is the time the Joad’s are living in and the film does a fantastic job of documenting that. We get to see not only the despair and the negative events, but there’s also a glimmer of hope. It’s a classic story of the human spirit and our will to survive and prosper even on what little that’s given to us.
Despite this strong foundation though, the story isn’t able to carry The Grapes of Wrath to greatness. The reason goes back to differences between older films and contemporary films. While visually and sonically the film feels fairly modern — a wider variety of camera angles, more dynamic movements, better dialogue recordings and sound effects — there’s still something missing; a bit of flair so to speak. As I mentioned with All Quiet on the Western Front, I find that whenever I watch and older film, I find I always need to force myself to look past the differences. Old films are different from the ones that are made today; there’s no denying that. But just because they’re different and not what we’re used to doesn’t mean they don’t have any value to them. And so I try find that value in older films even if I don’t find it to suit my particular tastes.
With All Quiet on the Western Front and The Grapes of Wrath that value happens to be in the story. It’s good, but it still needs something more. Nowadays that something more is usually visual effects and CGI, large explosions, or a big chase sequence. These modern-day inventions aren’t what’s lacking from The Grapes of Wrath however, it’s the essence of what these blockbuster tropes add to a film; energy. The Grapes of Wrath has a good story but it lacks energy; it lacks a drive that gets you excited about watching it. Even when a film has little plot and is mostly about painting a picture about what an era or environment is like, there’s still some tension or conflict to be had. The most obvious part about this film that would fit that description is that Tom is out of jail on parole. He was sentenced to seven years for homicide but was released on parole after four. A great place to add some much needed energy to the film, but every time his jail time is brought up or whenever he gets in a fight during the film, that energy is quickly diffused and lost because the rest of the family treats it as a joke.
The Grapes of Wrath is yet another old film that does have some positives to it but is lost for the most part because of it’s lack of energy. The story of a family’s struggle during the Great Depression is a harrowing one and brings up many great points — the scene about halfway through at the diner off route 66 looks at people’s generosity, or lack thereof, in an interesting way — but as far as entertainment goes, it misses the bar slightly. I still enjoyed watching, I was never turned off during the film, but there really isn’t anything here for someone to want to watch it just for fun.
THE RATING: 3 out of 5