Friday, 5 September 2014

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

John Ford is one of those filmmakers that I write about repeatedly, since I consider him to be one of the great artists of the 20th century. There are many aspects that make up his artistry, such as his themes and his conception of time, his work with the actors, his creation of distinctly Fordian characters. But it is perhaps above all else the poetic images, with many typical compositions recurring all the way through his career. Some of his films must be regarded as the most beautiful, visually, that has ever been made. The Grapes of Wrath (1940) is one of them. It is not Ford's best but it is still very impressive, and quite wonderful. Here are some stills:





 




In his correspondence with Lindsay Anderson for Anderson's book About John Ford, the scriptwriter for The Grapes of Wrath, Nunnally Johnson, boldly claimed that whatever quality is to be found in Ford's films came from the scripts Johnson had written, and the films Ford had made with other writers were just bad. As claims go it is depressingly weak. These images alone contradict Johnson because the images are Ford's, not Johnson's (nor John Steinbeck's). The cinematographer on the film was Gregg Toland, famous for his work with William Wyler and especially with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (1941), but there is nothing in either Wyler's or Welles's films that are like the images to be found in the films of Ford for the obvious reason that their films were not directed by Ford. Of course, Toland was important for the look of the film, and producer Darryl F. Zanuck took a great, and close, interest in the production (Ford was more independent on other films), but the look and feel of the film is still Ford's. "Let's take a chance and do something different." he said to Toland when they were preparing it, and he later added "It worked out all right."

9 comments:

  1. Admittedly, a beautiful movie with a nice feel to it but I have to retreat to familiar ground: I liked the book better storywise.

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  2. As great as Ford was, I don't think his sense of humor has aged well. This grates on me particularly in THE SEARCHERS - I could do without all the jokes about the "squaw." Does this aspect of his work come across better when his films are subtitled in Swedish?

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    1. The sequences with "Look" are definitely not the best parts of The Searchers, but I don't have a problem with Ford's humour in general. I used to, but not any more.

      I don't think the subtitles matter much but I've hardly seen any with subs so I don't really know.

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  3. The humor around Look is neatly turned against those who would laugh at her. It is really Marty who comes over as ridiculous in those scenes, not Look. And her death finishes her role on a tragic note. She is a character created with a lot of heart and one who gives a lot to the film.

    This is an argument that started in what I might call Academic Ideological Feminism--the critical theory of the 70s that in my view did so much harm. Its contributions to the real beauties within cinema, and indeed to the real content of movies, has been negligible.

    I mostly look in here without commenting but The Searchers is first among equals of my three favorite movies, as Ford is for me easily the greatest of all directors. I've spent a lot of time with his movies, and like to feel that in watching, reflecting and studying I have come to a sophisticated view of them.

    On the subject of Ford's sense of humor, for me the greatest thing in film directing is shifting moods, dark to light, comic to serious, and in this above all, Ford is a master.

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    1. It is true that the death of Look adds depth, but I still feel the part with her could have been handled in a better way. Marty treats her with contempt which feel at odds with his character, unless we are meant to sympathise with him, but why should we do that when his behaviour is so uncalled for? I do not think critical theory of the 70s is to be blamed for that criticism.

      Since you said that The Searchers is "first among equals of my three favourite films" I think you need to mentioned the other two!

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  4. (Though I had posted a reply yesterday--seems like it didn't take).

    The other two are The Lusty Men (1952: Nicholas Ray) and Gertrud (1964; Carl Dreyer).

    I'm at odds with a lot of people on Look and I know that. And I don't disagree with what you say about Marty. But I don't think we are meant to sympathise with him here just because we do elsewhere in the film. In many ways he is more spiritually enlightened, despite his youth, than the other charactser and in the end, Ethan is plainly affected by that for the good. But it seems to me he can also be in other ways, the inexperienced and immature young man who would react in this callous way with a woman, and that just makes him a richer character. It is possible that I sometimes overreact toward 70s critical theory--but I do think it had a kind of ripple effect and wasn't good for a lot of films. Some of the earlier critical accounts of The Searchers (like McBride and Wilmington's first piece) when it was first rediscovered were truer to the movie and closer to it than many that came later.

    Fredrik, I thought you made a wonderful choice of images from The Grapes of Wrath to support what you said.

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    1. Thanks Blake.

      It's been far too long since I saw The Lusty Men but I think of it often, and I've long been eager to watch it again. I've got it on VHS but alas I've got no working VHS player at the moment. Getrud is the only one of Dreyer's sound films I haven't seen yet. But it's within reach fortunately!

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  5. Just heard that The Lusty Men will be on Warner Archive DVD this week.

    I envy you to have first experience of Gertrud coming along.

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