Monday, February 2, 2009

Depression Era Movie Review: The Grapes of Wrath

Cover of "The Grapes of Wrath"Cover of The Grapes of Wrath

I recently re-watched the well known movie classic, "Grapes of Wrath." Made in 1940 and starring a young Henry Fonda, it is perhaps the most famous movie about the Great Depression in America. When I saw the film as a kid, the movie seemed sort of a quaint joke or curiosity. How could something like that ever happen in this country? Today it doesn't seem so funny...

This movie is definitely not a pick me upper. The plot concerns a family of Oklahoma sharecroppers who are evicted from their farm. Jobless, with no prospects and little money, the large family piles into a dilapidated truck and heads off to California in search of work. Along the way Grandma and Grandfather die, and one of the brothers deserts his pregnant wife. The family is close to starving. They take what jobs they can picking fruit. Finally, they land on a Government run New Deal farm and life improves a bit. Henry Fonda, the oldest son, becomes and a political activist and leaves the family.

There is also a theme in the movie of anyone associated with capitalism being quite brutal. Cops in uniform work for the land owners and will not hesitate to kill the farm workers if they get out of line. The land owners try to take advantage of the very poor farmers plight by paying poverty level wages. The only one sympathetic to their plight is the government run New Deal farm. So the movie is in theme almost like George Orwell's, "Animal Farm" in reverse. This time the Capitalists, rather than the Socialists, are the bad guys.

So why watch this movie now? Well, the themes are apropos. Families being evicted from homes, joblessness, and lives in turmoil has again become common. Henry Fonda is a marvelous actor and this is one of his finest performances. And the specter of watching children that are hungry and growing up in such difficult circumstances in America is heartbreaking.

When I first saw this film, I assumed the Depression could never happen again. Never say never.