Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Grapes of Wrath (dir by John Ford)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1940 best picture nominee, The Grapes of Wrath!)

How dark can one mainstream Hollywood film from 1940 possibly be?

Watch The Grapes of Wrath to find out.

Based on the novel by John Steinbeck and directed by John Ford, The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joad family and their efforts to neither get sent to prison nor starve to death during the Great Depression.  When they lose their farm in Oklahoma, they head for California.  Pa Joad (Russell Simpson) has a flyer that says someone is looking for men and women to work as pickers out west.  The 12 members of the Joad Family load all of their possessions into a dilapidated old truck and they hit the road.  It quickly becomes apparent that they’re not the only family basing all of their hopes on the vague promises offered up by that flyer.  No matter how much Pa may claim different, it’s obvious that California is not going to be the promised land and that not all the members of the family are going to survive the trip.

Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) is the oldest of the Joad sons.  He’s just been released from prison and he’s killed in the past.  Having been in prison during the start of the Great Depression, Tom doesn’t realize how bad things truly are until he arrives home and sees someone he grew up with using a tractor to knock down a house.  (It’s just business, of course.  The owners of the house can’t pay their bills so the house gets destroyed.)  The film’s story is largely told through Tom’s eyes and Henry Fonda gives a sympathetic performance, one the gets the audience to empathize with and relate to a character who is a total outsider.

As for the rest of the Joad Family, Ma (Jane Darwell) is the glue who holds them together and who refuses to allow them to surrender to despair.  (And yet even Ma is forced to make some tough choices when the starving children of one work camp ask her to share her family’s meal with them.)  Rosasharan (Dorris Bowdon) is pregnant while Grandpa (Charley Grapewin) is too sickly for the trip but doesn’t have anywhere else to go.  And then there’s Casy (John Carradine), the former preacher turned labor organizer.  Casy is not blood-related but he soon becomes a member of the family.

The Joads have a healthy distrust of the police and other authority figures and that turns out to be a good thing because there aren’t many good cops to be found between Oklahoma and California.  Instead, the police merely serve to protect the rich from the poor.  Whenever the workers talk about forming a union and demanding more than 5 cents per box for their hard work, the police are there to break heads and arrest any troublemakers on trumped up charges.  Whenever a town decides that they don’t want any “Okies” entering the town and “stealing” jobs, the police are there to block the roads.

The Grapes of Wrath provides a portrait of the rough edges of America, the places and the people who were being ignored in 1940 and who are still too often ignored today.  John Ford may not be the first director that comes to mind when you think of “film noir” but that’s exactly what The Grapes of Wrath feels like.  During the night scenes, desperate faces emerge from the darkness while menacing figures lurk in the shadows.  When the sun does rise, the black-and-white images are so harsh that you almost wish the moon would return.  The same western landscape that Ford celebrated in his westerns emerges as a wasteland in The Grapes of Wrath.  The American frontier is full of distrust, anger, greed, and ultimately starvation.  (Reportedly, the film was often shown in the Soviet Union as a portrait of the failure of America and capitalism.  However, it was discovered that Soviet citizens were amazed that, in America, even a family as poor as the Joads could still afford a car.  The Grapes of Wrath was promptly banned after that.)  John Ford is often thought of as being a sentimental director but there’s little beauty or hope to be found in the images of The Grapes of Wrath.  (Just compare the way The Grapes of Wrath treats poverty to the way Ford portrayed it in How Green Was My Valley.)  Instead, the film’s only hint of optimism comes from the unbreakable familial bond that holds the Joads together.

As dark as it may be, the film is nowhere near as pessimistic as the original novel.  The novel ends with a stillborn baby and a stranger starving to death in a barn.  The film doesn’t go quite that far and, in fact, offers up some deus ex machina in the form of a sympathetic government bureaucrat.  (Apparently, authority figures weren’t bad as long as they worked for the federal government.)  That the book is darker than the movie is not surprising.  John Steinbeck was a socialist while John Ford was a Republican with a weakness for FDR.  That said, even though the film does end on a more hopeful note than the novel, you still never quite buy that things are ever going to get better for anyone in the movie.  You want things to get better but, deep down, you know it’s not going to happen.  Tom says that he’s going to fight for a better world and Fonda’s delivers the line with such passion that you want him to succeed even if you know he probably won’t.  Ma Joad says the people will never be defeated and, again, you briefly believe her even if there’s not much evidence to back her up.

Even when viewed today, The Grapes of Wrath is still a powerful film and I can only guess what it must have been like to see the film in 1940, when the Great Depression was still going on and people like the Joads were still making the journey to California.  Not surprisingly, it was nominated for best picture of 1940, though it lost to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

Ride Away: John Wayne in John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS (Warner Brothers 1956)


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John Ford’s  THE SEARCHERS is without question an American Film Classic. I’d even go as far as saying it’s my second all-time favorite film, directly behind CASABLANCA. Every shot is a Remington Old West masterpiece, every actor perfect in their role, large or small, and not a minute of footage is wasted. The film has also stirred up quite a bit of controversy over time for John Wayne’s portrayal of the main character Ethan Edwards.

The plot is structured like Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, but let’s get it out of the way right now: Ethan Edwards is no hero. He’s a mean, bitter, unreconstructed Confederate who’s been on the shady side of the law since war’s end. When he returns to his brother Aaron’s homestead, he makes no bones about his distaste for “half-breed” Martin Pawley (really an eighth Cherokee). His hatred of Native Americans even extends to their dead, as…

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Sail Away: John Wayne in John Ford’s THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (United Artists 1940)


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This is my third year participating in the TCM Summer Under the Stars blogathon hosted by Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film , and second entry spotlighting Big John Wayne . The Duke and director John Ford made eleven films together, from 1939’s STAGECOACH to 1963’s DONOVAN’S REEF.  Wayne’s role in the first as The Ringo Kid established him as a star presence to be reckoned with, and the iconic actor always gave credit to his mentor Ford for his screen success. I recently viewed their second collaboration, 1940’s THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, a complete departure for Wayne as a Swedish sailor on a tramp steamer, based on four short plays by Eugene O’Neill, and was amazed at both the actor’s performance and the technical brilliance of Ford and his cinematographer Gregg Toland  , the man behind the camera for Welles’ CITIZEN KANE.

THE LONG VOYAGE HOME is a seafaring saga…

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Holiday Scenes That I Love: The Ending of It’s A Wonderful Life


At this very moment, NBC is broadcasting the classic 1946 film, It’s A Wonderful Life!  They show it every Christmas Eve and every year, I watch.

Why?

Because I love this movie so much that I could watch it a million times and then a million times more!  There is no movie that makes me happier than It’s A Wonderful Life.  There is no movie that brings tears to my mismatched eyes as quickly as It’s A Wonderful Life.  I love this film so much that I even watch it outside of December.  If I’m depressed, this is the movie that I’m going to watch.

And who can blame me?  The scene below is one that I love but, to be honest, there’s not a single scene in It’s A Wonderful Life that I don’t love.  I even love those scenes with old Sam Wainwright going, “Hee haw!”  Sam may have been a jackass but he was a good guy underneath it all.

(Plus, he made a fortune in plastics!  Money can excuse all sorts of obnoxious behavior!)

As for the scene below, it’s the final ten minutes of It’s A Wonderful Life.  To me, nothing exemplifies the joy of the holidays better than Jimmy Stewart running down the snow-filled streets of Bedford Falls and shouting “Merry Christmas” to everyone, even mean old Mr. Potter.  (“And a happy new year to you — IN JAIL!”)  This is a great scene and wonderfully acted by James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Ward Bond, and everyone else in the film!

And here it is!

(For an alternative take on whether or not Bedford Falls would have been better off if George Bailey had never been born, check out this interview with Mr. Potter himself!)

 

Horror On The Lens: Son of Frankenstein (dir by Rowland V. Lee)


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For those who might have a hard time keeping their Universal monster films straight, 1939’s Son of Frankenstein is the third Frankenstein film, following the original and Bride of Frankenstein.  It’s the first one to have been directed by someone other than James Whale.  It’s the one that features the one-armed policeman.  It’s the one that features Bela Lugosi as a vengeful grave robber named Ygor.  It’s also the final film in which Boris Karloff would play the monster.

And, on top of all that, it’s also a pretty good movie, one that holds up as both a sequel and stand-alone work!

Son of Frankenstein opens decades after the end of Bride of Frankenstein.  (How many decades is open for debate.  I’ve read that the film is supposed to be taking place in 1901 but there’s a scene featuring a 1930s-style car.  Let’s just compromise and say that the film is taking place in 1901 but someone in the village owns a time machine.  I think that’s the most logical solution.)  Henry Frankenstein is long dead, but his name continues to strike fear in the heart of Germans everywhere.  Someone has even tagged his crypt with: “Heinrich von Frankenstein: Maker of Monsters.”

Needless to say, everyone in the old village is a little uneasy when Henry’s son, Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) shows up at the castle.  In fact, they’re so uneasy that the local constable, Krogh (Lionel Atwill), pays Wolf and his family a visit.  Krogh explains that, when he was a child, the Monster ripped his arm out “by the roots.”  AGCK!

(That said, that really doesn’t sound like the Frankenstein Monster that we all know and love, does it?  I suspect there’s more to the story than Krogh is letting on…)

Wolf explains that he has no plans to bring the Monster back to life.  He then sets out to do just that.  Wolf wants to redeem Henry’s reputation and the only way to do that is to prove that Henry was not misguided in his quest to play God.  Helping Wolf out is Ygor (Bela Lugosi).  Ygor is a former blacksmith who was due to be hanged but, because of a malfunction with the gallows, he just ended up with a disfigured neck.

It turns out that Ygor happens to know where the Monster’s body is being hidden.  When Wolf brings the Monster back to life, he quickly discovers that Ygor’s motives weren’t quite as altruistic as Wolf originally assumed.  It turns out that Ygor wants revenge on the jury that sentenced him to death and now, he can use the Monster to get that revenge.

As for the Monster, he no longer speaks.  Instead, he just angrily grunts and he kills.  Whatever kindness he developed during the previous film was obviously blown up with Elsa Lanchester at the end of Bride of Frankenstein.  On the one hand, it’s fun to see Karloff as the monster.  On the other hand, it’s impossible not to regret that he doesn’t get to do much other than stumble around, grunt, and strangle people.  There are only two scenes where Karloff gets to show any real emotion and, in both cases, he does such a great job that you can’t help but regret that the monster is such a one-dimensional character in Son of Frankenstein.

But no matter!  Regardless of how the film uses (or misuses) the Monster, it’s still an entertaining 1930s monster film.  Basil Rathbone does a great job as the imperious but ultimately kindly Wolf von Frankenstein.  And Bela Lugosi’s natural theatricality makes him the perfect choice for Ygor.  To be honest, I actually think Lugosi does a better job as Ygor than he did as Dracula.  I know that’s blasphemy to some but watch the two films side-by-side.  Lugosi is clearly more invested in the role of Ygor.  Considering that Lugosi reportedly felt that he was mistreated in Hollywood, it’s tempting to wonder if some of his own anger informed his performance as the perennially mistreated and bitter Ygor.

Son of Frankenstein closed out the Karloff Frankenstein trilogy.  When Frankenstein’s Monster made his next appearance, he would be played by the same actor who later took over the role of Dracula from Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr.

(And interestingly enough, Lugosi would subsequently take over the role of the Monster from Chaney.  But that’ll have to wait for a future review…)

Bravo for RIO BRAVO (Warner Brothers 1959)


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If there’s such a thing as the quintessential “John Wayne Movie”, RIO BRAVO may very well be it. Producer/director Howard Hawks created the perfect blend of action and humor, leading an all-star cast through this tale of a stand-off between the good guys and the bad guys. RIO BRAVO’s theme has been done over many times, most notably by John Carpenter in 1976’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13. Hawks himself remade the film, with Wayne again starring, as EL DORADO and RIO LOBO, but the original remains the best of the bunch.

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The plot itself is pretty basic. When disgraced deputy Dude (called Borrachon, Spanish for ‘big drunk’) walks into a saloon looking for booze, no-good Joe Burdette tosses a silver dollar into a spittoon for kicks. Sheriff John T. Chance stops Dude from embarrassing himself, only to receive a whack in the head for his efforts. Dude goes after Joe and a fight breaks out, and Joe kills…

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Cleaning Out The DVR #38: It Happened One Night (dir by Frank Capra)


For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by the end of today!!!!!  Will she make it?  Well, it depends on whether or not she can finish the review below!)

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Before I talk too much about the 1934 film It Happened One Night, I want to tell a story about legs.

I’ve always been insecure about having a slightly large nose and once, when I was 17 years old, I was giving my mom a hard time about the fact that I had basically inherited it from her.  I was going on and on and being fairly obnoxious about it.  (Yes, believe it or not, I can occasionally be obnoxious…)

Finally, my mom held up her hand and said, “Yes, you got your nose from me but you also got my legs so stop crying!”

And you know what?  I glanced down at my legs and I realized that she was right and that made me feel a lot better.  Ever since then, I’ve taken a lot of pride in having a good pair of legs.

Now, you may be asking yourself what that has to do with It Happened One Night.  Well, It Happened One Night is one of the ultimate “good legs” movies.  That’s because It Happened One Night features the famous scene in which Claudette Colbert teaches Clark Gable the proper way to hitchhike.  (If I ever take up hitchhiking, I’m planning on using the same technique.)

That’s the scene that It Happened One Night is justifiably famous for.  However, It Happened One Night is more than just a film about hitchhiking.

It’s also a romance, one that features Claudette Colbert at her wackiest and Clark Gable at his sexiest.  Reportedly, the sell of undershirts plummeted after Clark Gable took off his shirt and revealed that he wasn’t wearing one.

It was one of the first road movies and it was such a success that it remains influential to this very day.  Any time you watch a movie that features two seemingly different characters getting to know each other on a road trip, you’re watching a movie that exists because of It Happened One Night.  (And yes, that includes Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road.)  

Frank Capra won his first Oscar for directing this film and It Happened One Night remains one of his most likable and least preachy films.  Just compare the unpretentious, down-to-Earth style of It Happened One Night to Meet John Doe.

Perhaps most importantly, It Happened One Night was the first comedy to win the Oscar for best picture.  It Happened One Night is a film that announces that a film doesn’t have to be a self-serious, pretentious epic to be great. Before the victory of It Happened One Night, the top prize was exclusively reserved for films like Cimarron and Calvalcade.  (Seriously, just try watching some of those early winners today.)  It Happened One Night‘s Oscar victory was a victory for the future of entertainment.

(By the way, as I sit here typing up this review, I keep accidentally typing It’s A Wonderful Life instead of It Happened One Night.  That’s the power of Frank Capra.)

It Happened One Night tells the story of  Pete Warne (Clark Gable).  Pete is an out-of-work reporter.  Though he may be down on his luck, he’s still confident and lovably cocky in that way that only Clark Gable could be.  While riding on a bus from Florida to New York, Pete recognizes one of his fellow passengers as Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert), an heiress who has recently eloped with a buffoonish big game hunter named King Westley (Jameson Thomas).  Ellie’s father wants to get the marriage annulled and has people all over the country searching for his daughter.  Pete agrees not to call Ellie’s father if Ellie will agree to give him an exclusive story when she meets up with Westley in New York.

For the rest of the film, we follow Pete and Ellie as they cross the United States, spending awkward nights in motel rooms, getting kicked off of buses, and hitchhiking.  Ellie gives lessons on how to get a car to stop.  Pete delivers a long monologue on the proper way to undress before going to bed.  Along the way, Pete and Ellie fall in love.  It also becomes obvious that Ellie’s father is right about Westley only marrying her for her money.

They also meet a large cast of increasingly eccentric characters.  Whether they’re dealing with the passengers on the bus or the cranky people staying at a rest stop or a motorist who won’t stop singing, Pete and Ellie do noy meet anyone who doesn’t have at least one odd quirk.  Like many classic screwball comedies, It Happened One Night takes place in a world where everyone — from a bus driver to a desk clerk to a group of women waiting to use a shower at a rest stop — has something to say about everything.  Some of the film’s funniest moments come from watching the normally smooth Pete have to deal with the increasingly crazy world in which he’s found himself.

(For her part, Ellie is at her happiest when things are at their strangest.  Ellie’s the best.)

The other great moments come from simply watching Gable and Colbert interact.  They have an amazing chemistry and it comes through in their performances.  It’d odd to read that apparently neither Gable nor Colbert were happy to be cast in It Happened One Night because their performances are so much fun to watch.  A love story only works if you love the characters and the love story in It Happened One Night definitely works.

As I stated above, It Happened One Night was the first comedy to win Best Picture.  Beyond that, it was also the first movie to win all of the top 5 Oscars: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay.  (Those were also the only 5 nominations that It Happened One Night received.)  For once, the Academy got it right.  It Happened One Night remains a delightful film.

(Oh my God, y’all, I did it!  That’s 38 films reviewed in 10 days and my DVR now has space to record all sorts of things!  And making it all the better is that I finished this project by reviewing a truly wonderful comedy like It Happened One Night!)