“The Grapes of Wrath” (1940; 2004 remastered DVD)

(the original wrap-around look of Steinbeck’s first edition)

Social realism in American literature and film made a major uptick with the release of John Steinbeck’s 1937 The Grapes of Wrath and the 1940 film version, the latter which looks terrific on the remastered DVD.

On the surface, the book was based on the real hardships of displaced Okie farmers trekking to California looking for the Promised Land, only to find unchecked corrupt picking establishments that exploited their suffering even further. Their misery and suffering is graphically depicted with many deaths, abuses, violence, and exploitation. Both the book and movie remain classics on the death of the original American Dream and illegal exploitation of poor, simple, decent folks.

Spoiler: Steinbeck’s book is well-adapted in the movie except for the key climactic scene with the pregnant Rose of Sharon feeding a dying man. Otherwise, screenplay writer Nunnally Johnson and director-great John Ford do a nice job of bringing Steinbeck’s social criticism to visual life. The gloomy Depression atmosphere is effectively recreated by black-and-white cinematography shot along the famed Route 66 highway.

There are strong performances by Henry Fonda (as protagonist Tom Joad), Linda Darwell (as his hopeful, long-suffering mother), and John Carradine (as Jim Casy, the crazy ex-preacher). Grapes remains the ultimate book and film document of 1930s North America and Steinbeck’s best novel as well as one of Fonda’s and Ford’s best movies. Hard-hitting still; highly recommended viewing into a long-forgotten episode of history.

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