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.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Bad Girl (dir by Frank Borzage)


Seeing as how I started this day by watching Fifty Shades Darker, it seemed appropriate to end the day by watching yet another film about the difficulty of finding love and commitment.  This film came out a little bit earlier than Fifty Shades of Grey.  In fact, it even predates the whole concept of fan fiction.  This film came out in 1931 and it would probably be totally forgotten today if not for the fact that, 85 years ago, it was nominated for Best Picture.

Of course, that’s not to say that Bad Girl is particularly well-known.  Until I came across it on my list of best picture nominees, I didn’t know that it even existed.  According to Wikipedia, it was based on a novel and a play and it did rather well at the box office.  The Academy apparently liked it, awarding it Oscars for both Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.  It’s currently available on YouTube.  That’s where I saw it.  But, despite all of that, it definitely appears to be one of the more obscure films to have ever been nominated for best picture.

Bad Girl opens with Dorothy Hailey (Sally Eilers) in a wedding gown.  However, she’s not getting married.  Instead, she’s a store model and, in a rather surreal little sequence, Dorothy and her co-workers walk through the store in their bridal gowns while sleazy men leer at them.  As Dorothy complains to her best friend, Edna Diggs (Minna Gombell), men are “only interested in one thing.”  When Dorothy’s boss propositions her, Dorothy claims to have a prizefighter husband waiting for her at home.  In truthfulness, Dorothy lives with her overprotective brother (William Pawley), a judgmental brute who accuses her of being a tramp if she stays out too late.

At Coney Island, Edna makes a bet that Dorothy won’t be able to get surly Eddie Collins (James Dunn) to talk to her.  Dorothy takes the bet and then proceeds to go over to Eddie and play a ukulele, until Eddie gets annoyed enough to tell her to be quiet.  Eddie claims to not like women  and he accuses Dorothy of being a tease.  “Listen, sister,” he tells her, “if you don’t want guys to salute, take down the flag.”

Wow, Eddie sure does seem to be a jerk, doesn’t he?

Well, don’t worry.  It turns out that Eddie isn’t as bad as he seems, it’s just that he’s often in a bad mood because he doesn’t have much money and he wants to open up his own radio store.  However, Eddie and Dorothy quickly fall in love and soon, they’re married…

But, of course, things never go that smoothly.  It turns out that Eddie is proud and stubborn.  Fortunately, he’s played by a charming actor named James Dunn because, without Dunn’s considerable working class charm, Eddie would probably be insufferable.  Dorothy, meanwhile, fears letting Eddie know that she’s pregnant…

And you know what?

I liked Bad Girl.  

On the one hand, Bad Girl is definitely a dated film.  Any film released in 1931 is going to seem dated when watched in 2017.  But, at the same time, that also means that Bad Girl works as a nice little time capsule.  Watching Bad Girl was like stepping into a time machine.  And it turns out that the 1930s weren’t that bad!  Everyone wore nice clothes and talked like James Cagney.

But, dated it may be, there is also an almost timeless quality to Bad Girl.  Even decades after the film was originally released, the likable chemistry between James Dunn and Sally Eilers feels real and you really do care about what happens to them.  You feel like they belong together and it’s hard not to worry when they fight or when they misunderstand each other’s intentions.  (This happens rather frequently.)  Furthermore, Bad Girl is a film about people who, often times, are struggling just to make ends meet.  That’s something to which everyone can still relate.  It certainly sets it apart from a lot of the other films made both then and today.

Bad Girl was nominated for best picture but it lost to a film that was almost its total opposite, Grand Hotel.  Unlike most of the other old best picture nominees, I have never seen Bad Girl on TCM but it is on YouTube and you can watch it below!