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Thursday, August 27, 2015

AFI Film Review: The Grapes of Wrath

As punishment for my film school sins I’m watching all of the AFI Top 100 films that I haven’t seen. I will be reviewing them and grading them as I watch them.

Grade: B-

I was never going to like this film. As a Californian and an avid reader, I love John Steinbeck. Of Mice and Men was the first of his books that I read in ninth grade; East of Eden is Steinbeck’s Brothers Karamazov, but The Grapes of Wrath is Steinbeck’s commie pinko rag. Too harsh? The Grapes of Wrath is a masterfully written book, but most of the novel feels preachy, whole passages editorialize and the reader would be blind not to notice, and the end of the book is overly symbolic and melodramatic. Again, I love Steinbeck, but I do not like Grapes the book; in order for the movie to get my approval it would have had to blow me out of the water.

Time is the ultimate criteria for evaluating the films on this list. Grapes fails this test miserably. Firstly, the accents are way over the top. Previously I had imagined that American film directors only caricatured Black Americans and foreigners. In Grapes, however, they manage to take the Southern accent and make it sound as silly as Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif playing Russians. The plights of the country characters in the book might seem exaggerated (they weren’t) but that is a problem of the source material. Of course this all seems ridiculous now; the accents seem over the top in hindsight but maybe in sixty years the accents in No Country for Old Men (a film I love) will seem ridiculous as well. As long as I’m being unfair to the film I might as well point out that the jalopy they’re driving from Oklahoma to California can’t help but conjure up in the mind an image of the most famous American family to move out west: The Beverly Hillbillies. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Paul Henning came up with the idea for the Beverly Hillbillies after watching this film.

Of the things the film has going for it, the acting (accents aside) is first rate. There are two Hollywood patriarchs in the film (Henry Fonda and John Carradine); Henry Fonda is absolutely impossible not to like. If he weren’t in the film I don’t know what grade I would have given it or if I would have considered the viewing of the film nothing but a waste of time. John Carradine has three scenes of note and delivers big in each one. His transformation from confused ex-preacher to burgeoning communist leader is brilliant.

John Ford, in his infinite wisdom, or maybe it was the studio, spared the audience when he deviated from the novel’s ending. Most of the time, outside of Kubrick, it’s a bad idea to stray from the source material. The ending of Grapes, however, was less sappy and sentimental, though still plenty sappy and sentimental, than the novel’s original ending. If (read: when) Hollywood ever remakes this film, let’s hope the filmmaker pulls a Paul Thomas Anderson and uses the source material as a jumping off point. I remember being slightly annoyed after reading Oil! Because the book was far less interesting than the movie. Upton Sinclair was a fine muckraker, but the pictures (as I chomp down on my cigar) are all about spectacle, see! A remake of this film would be quite entertaining if it followed Tom Joad’s character exclusively; eventually Tom could find Connie, long after they’ve both made their way in the world, and Tom can try to avenge his sister while working to maintain his position in society. That would be a good film.

It’s important to note that Grapes is not a bad film. It’s just not an exceptional film; I wouldn’t want to watch it twice and I certainly wouldn’t put it on a list of the 100 greatest films in American history. That conclusion, however, is a little unfair. Given the time period in which the book and movie came out (beginning of WWII/tail-end of the depression), the cultural significance and topicality, and the great direction and performances, you could understand why the film made the list. It happened along at the right time in American history when a nation grappled with rapid economic development, inhumane labor practices, prejudices and intolerance. Many countries around the world are dealing with those same problems in our modern world. Grapes’s accents and tone may feel dated but its subject matter and message do not. In that way Grapes endures and will continue to do so.

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