I've heard of the fruits of labor, but I don't exactly know what to make of the "grapes of wrath", because I know good and well that wrath isn't exactly a good thing, and always figured that the term "fruit" was associated with something good, so I reckon I need to go back and do a bit more research on the term "fruit", unless of course grapes aren't actually considered fruits, in which case, I better not do any research or else my head will explode in a juicy mess like a grape, because the classification of a tomato is confusing enough. Maybe it's not so much the grapes that are wrathful as much as it's the grapevine, because if root is associated with all evil, then vines have to at least be pretty wrathful. Symbolic and ironically fitting planting term jokes aside, whenever I look at that title, I can't help but imagine a giant bunch of grapes descending from the sky and destroying everything so that the humans would finally know what it's like to be juiced, though I knew that this film would never be about that, because Steinbeck probably wouldn't do something that stupid. Lennie Small would look at that book and say, "I may be retarded, but don't insult my intelligence", but hey, it wouldn't be too much cheesier than this film's trailer, whose first minute was spent going on and on about the success of the book and even went as far as to put together corny dramatisations involving people talking about how they've "never had such a demand for a book" and "can't supply the demand". Of course, when you get down to it, the film is hardly cheesy, or at least about as hardly cheesy as it could get in 1940, which is probably why this film won John Ford his, like, sixteenth Oscar and hardly anything else. Well, to be fair, John Ford could have directed the biggest piece of garbage ever, and he would have still won Best Director, as sure as the hypothetical film in question would be lauded as a masterpiece fifty years later. Shoot, Ford's been dead since '73, and I'm surprised he's still not winning Oscars, as the Oscars did love him just so much, and I'm fine with that, because the man sure know how to make some good films, such as this one, and yet, as rewarding as this film is, not everything in this effort proves fruitful... if fruitful is actually supposed to mean rewarding.
Quite a bit has aged reasonably gracefully with this, for its time, in quite a few ways, fairly unique film, yet there's no getting around that, at the same time, quite a bit has dated, and often pretty cheesily, with dialogue being particularly faulty, whether when it's turning in a couple of shoddy one-off lines or serving as a component to the film's awkward exposition. The film opens up with Henry Fonda's Tom Joad character catching a ride after getting out of jail and predicting the thoughts and curiosity of the driver, just so explanations on where Joad was coming from and why he was sent there could be crowbarred in, and while expository dialogue pieces of that nature in the subsequent body are rarely on that level of awkward unsubtlety, screenwriter Nunnally Johnson puts only so much subtle delicacy into crafting plot and characters, with the character aspects being particularly flawed, partially because of some of the performances behind the characters. Now, some performances are better than others, with John Qualen stealing the show for the startlingly limited amount of time that he's occupies, delivering a strong presence, complimented by a surprising amount of potent emotional range, both strikingly broad and hauntingly subtle, that defines the human depth of the victims of this terrible time and helps in making the early acts effective as a hook. Of course, that's just the hook that Qualen all but carries, and outside of that, while you can expect quite a few other passable, if not reasonably decent performances, particularly that of the Oscar-earning Jane Darwell, also expect to see a couple of performances that fall flat as hardly effective, occasionally embarassingly, with Henry Fonda proving ineffective as a key lead by donning a presence near-devoid of layer variety, and making it all the worse through sometimes wooden, sometimes overdone and altogether nearly consistently weak line delivery. There are more strengths to the characterization than missteps, thus compensations for some faulty performances can be found, and backed up by perhaps as many fair performances as improvable ones, yet the fact of the matter is that the handling and portrayal of many of the characters who help drive this plot isn't without its shortcomings, much like other areas in plotting, for although the story is strong enough and, in quite a few areas, well-structured enough to make the final product compelling, there gets to be too much filler and not enough material to fully sustain your emotional investment, which leaves the potency of the dramatic depth to go a bit distanced at times. Again, the film is a compelling one today as sure as it was during its time, yet much has not aged as gracefully as it probably should have, with certain aspects being improvable on a general level, thus making for a flawed drama, yet one that rewards nevertheless. The film has its fair share of shortcomings, yet accels more often than not, particularly when it comes to visual style.
Needless to say, the visual style of this 1940 black-and-white film has dated all but considerably, yet for its time, Gregg Toland's cinematography was stunning, and remains commendable to this day, boasting near-striking detail and near-exceedingly clever lighting play that accentuates both darkness and light in a fashion that proves to be both quite handsome and supplementary to the film's tonal and, to a certain degree, thematic depths. If you can claim appreciation for the relative uniqueness of the Toland's photographic efforts, then you'll find yourself hard pressed to not be consistently engaged by the visual artistry that both catches your eye and stands as one of your more subtle touches to the film's depth, which isn't to say that the script is completely devoid of much of the graceful subtlety that this subject matter deserves. Again, some of the film's biggest flaws usually rest within Nunnally Johnson's screenplay, which gets to be all too often rather awkward and, in some areas, problematically-structured, yet perhaps on the whole, Johnson's take on John Steinbeck's classic vision, whether it be faithful or loose, stands reasonably strong, boasting only so much color in exposition and depth, yet color, nevertheless, that fleshes out and breathes enough life into the story to keep it lively and engaging, or at least more so, as the basic story concept, alone, holds quite a bit of livliness and engagement value. Yes, people, while I have, of course, not read Steinbeck's classic Pulitzer Prize winner that was apparently too successful for them to, at least according this film's aforementioned lame trailer, "supply the demand", yet am still quite aware that, after a while, this film strays quite a ways away from the original source material, yet whether it was the vision of Steinbeck or the revision of Johnson, what I'm seeing here is a very potent story concept with strong ideas, complimented by much dynamicity and weight of both a tonal and thematic nature, and while the execution of the worthy story concept doesn't always do the subject matter total justice, Johnson does a generally decent job of handling the tale, while director John Ford does an even better job. Now, with that said, it's not like John Ford's directorial efforts prove thoroughly effective, as he could work better with Johnson's script and Steinbeck's story, as sure as he could work better with more than a few performers, yet on the whole, Ford's efforts feel nothing short of inspired enough to keep atmosphere alive in order to produce a consistent degree of vitality that creates entertainment value, as well as an occasional degree of dramatic punch to really spark engagement value. The film's emotional resonance isn't exactly thorough, nor does it always age all that gracefully, yet it's there, and when it arrives, it often truly engrosses with graceful humanity that won't exactly leave you to cry your eyes out, but will certainly move you as it defines much depth within this should-be more well-handled tale. Make no mistake, this film could have indeed been better, yet as it stands, what is done right has enough charge to it to grip consistently and leave you to walk away rewarded.
To wrap up, the film finds its share of cheesily dated areas, whether it be dialogue or certain spots in exposition and characterization, whose effectiveness go further softended by more than a few improvable performances to match the passable, or even commendable performances, and with moments of problematic plotting proving to be distancing, the final product comes out falling short of its potential, yet not to an underwhelming state, going supported by striking cinematography and a worthy story concept, brought to life with general success by Nunnally Johnson's colorful script and John Ford's reasonably inspired direction, thus leaving "The Grapes of Wrath" to stand as a flawed yet ultimately compelling and rewarding classic dramatic piece.
3/5 - Good