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The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath(1940)

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According to materials contained in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department at the UCLA Theater Arts Library, Fox paid John Steinbeck $70,000 for the rights to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Steinbeck insisted that the studio add a clause to his contract stating that "the producer agrees that any motion picture based on the said literary property shall fairly and reasonably retain the main action and social intent of the said literary property." The film diverged from the novel most significantly in its ending. The celebrated speech of "Ma Joad," which ends the film ("We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out-they can't lick us. We'll go on forever, Pa, 'cause we're the people"), is actually taken from a chapter in the novel that appears approximately two-thirds of the way through. (In the novel, Ma says, "Why, Tom, we're the people that live. They ain't gonna wipe us out. Why, we're the people-we go on.") The novel ends as "Rosasharn" gives birth to a dead baby and then nurses a famished old man with the milk from her breasts. (This scene was included in the 1988 stage version of the story.) Associate producer and writer Nunnally Johnson, as quoted in a modern source, stated, "There had to be some ray of hope-something that would keep the people who saw it from going out and getting so drunk in utter despondency that they couldn't tell other people that it was a good picture to see. Steinbeck agreed on the necessity for a more hopeful ending." Although some modern sources have stated that studio head Darryl Zanuck wrote the final scene of the film, the only screenplays in the Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection, also at UCLA, dated July 13, 1939 and July 31, 1939, are by Johnson, and both include a final scene very similar to that which was in the film. Modern sources have also stated that during pre-production, Zanuck sent a team of investigators to check on the veracity of Steinbeck's account of the migrant workers' plight and was informed that conditions were actually much worse than those conveyed in the novel. The controversy surrounding the publication of Steinbeck's novel, which was banned in many places and condemned by the California Chamber of Commerce, resurfaced when Twentieth Century-Fox announced its intention to film the story. The Agricultural Council of California and the Associated Farmers of California began a publicity campaign against Fox in rural newspapers, calling for a boycott of the studio's films.
       According to the file for the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the PCA, on September 29, 1939, informed Fox that although the script for The Grapes of Wrath conformed to the provisions of the Production Code, a number of potential censorship problems had to be addressed. The list of suggested alterations or eliminations included a warning "not to characterize Muley as insane," the rewording of "certain of the lines which have reference to Rosasharn's pregnancy," the removal of a "toilet gag about Grandma," the elimination of "specific mention of Tulare County [California]" and a request not to identify a town as "Pixley." It was also suggested that the film not show "Tom killing the deputy in self-defense." A modern source quotes Zanuck as having said, in May 1939, "If they [the Hays Office] interfere with this picture I'm going to take full-page ads in the papers and print our correspondence."
       According to a September 1939 Hollywood Reporter news item, Twentieth Century-Fox put in a request for the loan of Spencer Tracy for the part of Tom even though the studio had already announced Henry Fonda for the spot. Although some modern sources note that Zanuck originally wanted Tyrone Power for the part of Tom, and later considered Don Ameche for the part, there is no official record indicating that this was the case in the Fox legal files or elsewhere. Fonda was cast in the role two weeks prior to the start of production and signed to a seven-year contract with the studio. A Hollywood Reporter pre-release news item noted that actress Patricia Doyle was cast in a "supporting role to Henry Fonda," but she did not appear in the released film. Although Hollywood Reporter noted that Henry King and his "migratory workers' orchestra from Weed Patch, CA," were set to perform in the picture, their appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. Modern sources add Rex Lease, Inez Palange and Harry Tenbrook to the cast, and note that Beulah Bondi was tested for the role of Ma Joad. Bondi, believing that she had the part, reportedly bought an old jalopy and moved to Bakersfield to live among the migrant workers in order to study for the role.
       Studio publicity material contained in the file on the film in the AMPAS Library notes that director John Ford banned all makeup and perfume from the set on the grounds that it was not in keeping with the tone of the picture. (The legal files, however, include a credit for a makeup man.) The legal files also note that the area around Needles, CA, was used as a riverbank in the film, Canejo Ranch stood in for the Keene ranch, the Irvine Ranch in Tustin, CA, provided backdrops for a montage sequence, and Lasky Mesa, in the San Fernando Valley near Chatsworth, CA, was used for the Joad farm and for Muley's farm. Second unit director Otto Brower took a crew to Oklahoma, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico, following the route that the "Okies" had taken West, and also filmed in Needles, Daggett and Tehachapi, CA. Brower and his crew filmed doubles in long shot to represent the Joad family members. According to modern sources, the second unit, while filming the Joads' car travelling down the highway, wanted to add a shot showing the large number of caravans heading west, so the film's business manager stopped actual cars making the trek and paid the drivers five dollars to escort the Joads' jalopy for the cameras.
       Modern sources note that Zanuck, feeling that the film would engender controversy due to its social themes, decided to hold its premiere in New York, where he believed it would be more sympathetically received. The Grapes of Wrath received many highly favorable reviews, including the Variety review, which called the film "an absorbing, tense melodrama, starkly realistic, and loaded with social and political fireworks." New York Times reviewer Frank Nugent wrote that the film had taken its place on the "...small uncrowded shelf devoted to the cinema's masterworks, to those films, which by dignity of theme and excellence of treatment, seem destined to be recalled not merely at the end of their particular year but whenever great motion pictures are mentioned." After Nugent wrote his highly favorable review of the film, according to his obituary in New York Times in 1966, he accepted an offer by Zanuck to go to work for Twentieth Century-Fox for three times his newspaper salary. Because Nugent had at times been a severe critic of that studio's films, some "cynics," according to Variety, thought that Zanuck was attempting to silence him by hiring him, but Nugent became convinced that the offer was genuine and accepted it. After being a script critic for a number of years, Nugent became one of Hollywood's top screenwriters, collaborating on some of Ford's most respected films.
       The Grapes of Wrath won an Academy Award for Best Direction and Best Supporting Actress (Jane Darwell), and it was nominated for the following Academy Awards: Best Actor, Best Editing, Best Sound Recording, Best Screenplay and Best Picture. The picture was also included in Film Daily's "ten best" list for 1940 and was named the best picture of 1940 by the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics association. A Tony Award-winning stage version of The Grapes of Wrath, directed by Frank Galati and starring Terry Kinney, Gary Sinise and Lois Smith, opened in Chicago in 1988. The play was later produced for the American Playhouse program and presented on the PBS television network on March 27, 1991. A 25-hour radio reading of Steinbeck's novel, featuring the voices of Carl Reiner, Kris Kristofferson and Laraine Newman, aired on Los Angeles radio station KPFK-FM on Thanksgiving weekend, 1989, and coincided with the novel's 50th anniversary.