The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon reviews The Grapes of Wrath.
John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, based on John Steinbeck’s novel, is a study in deliberate use of camera. Ford has a reputation for not moving the camera, to the point that any camera movement is quickly forgotten. Orson Welles has been quoted as saying that “Ford never moved the camera”—clearly an exaggeration. In The Grapes of Wrath, camera movement is minimal, but present. A few examples include: the second unit pans to follow Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) as he walks to a general store, and again as the truck in which he rides drives away; Ford mounted the camera to the front of the Joad family truck as they drove into a camp in California, efficiently showing the size of the camp and the extent of the squalor.
Throughout The Grapes of Wrath, Ford uses 2-shots to depict the relationships of the characters, while using close-ups only to emphasize the importance of what a character says. These techniques are on display in all of Ford’s films, of course, but their use seems particularly seamless here.
Ford also uses light deliberately. When Tom Joad and Casey (John Carradine) arrive at the old Joad home, candlelight creates tension and a sense of mystery and uncertainty. Later, when Tom and Casey are reunited in California, Casey moves in and out of shadow as he tells Tom what he’s learned about the way businesses treat their workers. Casey’s fidgeting and his moving in and out of light create another kind of tension—not just of uncertainty, but of danger.
In 1958, John Steinbeck wrote to Henry Fonda of his fondness of Ford’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. “It’s a wonderful picture, just as good as it ever was,” he wrote. “It doesn’t look dated, and very few people have ever made a better one…” (p.603). While it might look dated now, compared to modern cinema’s apparent requirement of quick cuts and extensive camera movement, it still tells a difficult story clearly and well.
Watch the trailer here.
Steinbeck, John. 1975. A Life in Letters, Penguin Books, New York, NY.