Making the Grades
Henry Fonda established himself as a young actor worth watching with his gritty portrayal of Tom Joad in the classic movie Grapes of Wrath. Fresh out of prison for a murder charge, Tom finds his way to the home of his parents (Jane Darwell and Russell Simpson) in Oklahoma. But instead of a warm welcome, he is greeted only with darkened windows and empty rooms.
The Joad family, like so many of their sharecropper neighbors, has been driven from their land by greedy investors. Packing whatever meager possessions they can on the back of a rickety old truck, they trundle their way to their Uncle John’s (Frank Darien). Tom’s reunion, when it finally happens there, temporarily lessens their pain—if only for a moment. All around them, scores of homeless migrant families are pushing their way across the country, looking for work. And soon the Joads are among them.
With a crumpled yellow flyer that promises jobs in California, the group of extended relatives begins their own trek, but only after they liquor up Grandpa (Charley Grapewin) enough to get him on the back of the truck. Besieged by flat tires, threatened by the locals in towns they pass through and vulnerable to outbursts of violence among their fellow travelers, they steer steadily westward. However, Tom is forced to keep a low profile in order to avoid more prison time. That feat becomes more difficult as the family struggles with desertion, death and dwindling funds. And it is intensified when Tom is involved in an altercation with law enforcement officers, which leaves one man dead.
Released in 1940, the movie, based on a novel by John Steinbeck, received seven nominations for Academy Awards. John Ford won an Oscar for Best Director and Jane Darwell took home the award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
Filmed in black and white, the production offers no rose colored glasses to help soften the dirty feel of this desperate decade when more and more individuals and families fell victim to the economic hardships of the Great Depression and the effects of the Dust Bowl. Yet, some survived, whether by strength of character or sheer luck. And that story of endurance in the face of tragedy enables this script to continue to speak to audiences 70 years after it debuted.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The Grapes of Wrath.
As well as being broke financially, many of the characters in this story have broken spirits. How is this portrayed? Why is Casy so willing to tag along when Tom sets out to find his family? In what other ways is the despair of the people portrayed?
Ma Joad feels guilty about having so little to share with the hungry children who gather around when her family stops at a migrant camp. How does this reveal what type of woman she is? How does she become the heroine of the story? What role did women play in helping their families survive during the Great Depression?