AFI #23: The Grapes of Wrath

“Wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.”

It’s really not fair for me to rate The Grapes of Wrath as a film considering John Steinbeck is one of my favorite writers and the novel is an American classic. Director John Ford never had a chance articulating this incredible novel in a two hour movie. The novel has so much depth and so many layers that the film couldn’t touch, and of course the film barely scratches the surface of those themes. The novel, of course, ends in shocking fashion with Rose of Sharon feeding a starving man from her breast and Ford was just not going to touch that with a ten foot pole in 1940. Additionally, former pastor Casy is a key character in the novel and he hardly plays a part in the film. Casy is the spiritual center of the novel and it is he who provides Tom Joad with inspiration to fight for justice. That said, I guess I’ll say a few good things about the film.

grapes-of-wrath-filmThe film was made not long after the fictional events of the Joad family would have taken place, and given that it was pretty bold of Ford to adapt Steinbeck’s novel for mass audiences. The dust bowl and depression was an horrific time in American history and one of the most important aspects of art is that it can provide people with a way to look at their own situations and the situations of those around them. For that reason the film is important and even though it doesn’t do the novel justice it still does a good job portraying life for the folks who were run off their land during the dust bowl and the difficulties they found out West.

Beyond the story there are some great acting performances, most especially that of Henry Fonda who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar but lost to James Stewart for The Philadelphia Story and for the record that is one of my favorite films and it is by far Stewart’s best performance so I’m not going to complain about Fonda losing. Jane Darwell actually did win an Oscar for playing Ma Joad and she was definitely a highlight in the film. She keeps the family together through difficult times and Darwell is terrific. She is a great actress who also had key roles in Gone With the Wind and Mary Poppins to name a couple.

Lastly the great John Carradine played Casy, and while he wasn’t in the film much he was great when he was on screen. In fact, I’ll leave you with my favorite line from the film…uttered by the fallen pastor Casy. It’s a line directly from the novel and one that scholars use to help answer the question of whether Steinbeck was an atheist or not. I suggest he was, as evidenced by this quote from Casy, along with similar anti-religious lines in a variety of his novels:

“Maybe there ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue, they’s just what people does. Some things folks do is nice and some ain’t so nice, and that’s all any man’s got a right to say.”

Next up: Some Like it Hot

AFI #87: 12 Angry Men

There is no denying America is obsessed with crime and punishment these days. There are tons of TV dramas on the air like Law & Order and CSI to help prove the point, but even more so we become transfixed as a nation when we get a particularly engaging event like the recent Casey Anthony trial. We’ve always been interested in law and order…crime shows have been a staple on TV since the beginning and everyone loves a good crime film.

How sure are you that Casey Anthony killed her little girl? I don’t know anyone who thought she was innocent, but the defense provided enough reasonable doubt to make the case she may not have murdered little Cailee. It seemed like a travesty of justice, but we weren’t in the room. If only…

12 Angry Men puts us in the jury room. It was made in 1957 and it serves as a great reminder today that not everything is as it seems when it comes to crime and punishment. So there is an important moral lesson in the film, but it’s also a damn fine courtroom drama with great acting and a compelling story. When the film opens, 12 jurors are walked into the jury room after the trial of a young man accused of killing his father. The jurors settle in and quickly vote to see where they stand…it is 11-1 in favor of conviction with Henry Fonda’s character as the lone holdout. Fonda’s character doesn’t make any assumptions about the case, he simply wants the jury to talk about it before sending a man to the electric chair. Then, little by little, the prosecution’s case falls apart. It’s quite enthralling really. Each juror is like someone you know. One is a hot head, another is a racist, another seems preoccupied with where he has to be rather than the fact that a life hangs on his decision. Aside from the fact it was all men, this is probably exactly how juries are today.

The drama in the room is palpable. It is a hot day and the men are sweating and tired. You can feel the heat through the screen. The whole film takes place in the jury room and you sort of feel like you’re stuck in there with them. Director Sidney Lumet did a great job of creating a mood. I really loved the first long scene in the jury room which was all done in one take with the camera panning around to each juror. Cool stuff.

I wonder if juries take their job as serious today as they did back in the day. The men on this jury worked hard to come to a verdict, and they listened to each other. Sure, there was fighting, but ultimately they all did the right thing. I like to think the Casey Anthony jury, for example, thought through all the details and evidence before coming to a verdict. I’m sure it was hard to let this woman walk, but they did what they thought was right based on the evidence and rule of law. We can bicker all we want about the result, but we weren’t in the room. That’s why 12 Angry Men is such a compelling drama.

Next Up: Platoon