The Grapes Of Wrath (1940)

California, Super Cool To The Homeless

The Grapes of Wrath was impressively released less than a year following the release of the novel and yet within this short timeframe director John Ford crafted one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. A number of John Ford’s movies have that foreign film feel – a feeling of very raw, lifelike emotion. The Grapes of Warth itself is one of the most emotionally draining films of all time with one scene after another drawing up such feelings of pity; everything is rough, dirty nor is there makeup on any of the actors. Just take the scene in which the depression-ridden Joad family on their way to California attempt to buy bread from a dinner (a scene which really puts the value of money in perspective) – The emotion is one part humility and the other part pathetic.

Yokels, rednecks, hillbillies – everyone’s favourite punching bag. The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t look down America’s uneducated, rural white folk nor presents them as a caricature but that still doesn’t change the fact that none of the Joad clan are the sharpest tools in the shed nor don’t understand how the outside world works. Just as we are introduced to the family the youngest daughter Rosasharn is pregnant and married when still a teen while the family is dirt poor and huge as it is.

Henry Fonda’s performance as Tom Joad may be the pinnacle of his acting career. His stone face alongside the laid-back manner in which he walked and talked is mesmerising yet Joad is not someone I would fancy being in the vicinity off. Fonda’s performance has a sinister edge to it and a sense of barely restrained violence. His proclamation to the truck driver near the beginning of the film when telling him the reason he was in prison, a simple uttering of “homicide” could come straight out of a horror movie. Jane Darwell on the other hand as Ma Joad is the other great scene stealer with her hauntingly sombre, tour-de-force performance as a character with one ultimate aim – keeping the fambly together.

The amazing landscape shots, use of German expressionism and high contrast lighting give way for such unforgettable images from a car light driving along the horizon to silhouettes walking across a hill, thanks to cinematographer Gregg Toland. Take the scene at the campsite in which the characters discuss their present situation; it’s so dreamlike with the odd, unnatural angles, it couldn’t be more mesmerising. I also recommend watching the South Park episode Over Logging which parodies this scene (and the movie as a whole), right down to the black & white cinematography.

Once the Joads arrive at the Farmworkers’ Wheat Patch run by the Department of Agriculture it is a temporary relief to see something good happen to the family, after all, they have been through. When The Grapes of Wrath was released in 1940, the US Secretary of Agriculture was Henry A. Wallace, whom that same year was running for Vice President with Franklin D. Roosevelt; a message of support for FDR and the New Deal no doubt? At the government camp they are greeted by a seemingly genuine, honest man who looks like FDR and tells them they have washtubs with running water; a world away from the corporate run camps the Joads took residence earlier in the film – all sounds too good to be true? The government is the solution to the Joad’s problems (temporally at least as they end up leaving at a later point), nor at any point in the film do we see any charitable organisations out to help the poor. It’s fairly obvious that The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t exactly lean to the right of politics; evil bankers running people off their land, corrupt police, capitalists treating people like dogs, total collapse of the free market, socialist camp run by the government is only decent place to be in which cops are not allowed to lines of dialogue such as “people are going to win rich, people are going to die”. – A world of oppressor and the oppressed if there ever existed one. Regardless of one’s politics, I still contend The Grapes of Wrath to be one of the most emotionally draining films in all of cinema.

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Larceny Inc. (1942)

Under Pressure

How can you resist a film like Larceny Inc once you’ve heard the plot? It’s one of those quirky film concepts I just love. A cocky criminal and his two buffoons buy a luggage store so they can dig their way into the bank next door. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is how it plays out like a live action cartoon. Nothing ever goes beyond the scene in the moment; for example in one scene a set of oil pipes are burst during the digging process and the basement from which they are digging from is drenched in oil and yet this is never mentioned again. Even as one character who is not involved in the ban heist comes across the two drenched in the oil he bizarrely does not comment on their appearance; that’s the twisted cartoon world Larceny Inc incorporates. I’ve always thought actors from the 1930’s resembled cartoon characters with their exaggerated facial features and distinctive accents; very true with this cast including Edward G. Robinson, Jack Carson, and even a young Jackie Gleason; all live action caricatures.  Actors who emerged after the war generally didn’t have this and instead were actually more lifelike. You really get a sense of the world the movie takes place in with a street populated with such memorable and mostly ethnic characters giving the movie that Shop Around the Corner edge to it.

Maxwell aka Pressure’s gift wrapping has to be the comedic highlight of Robinson’s career; a comedy moment which couldn’t be timed more perfectly. His uttering of “$9:75”  is funny enough as it is but his pathetic attempt at gifting wrapping which follows had me in stitches. I also love Jack Carson’s attempt at hitting on Jane Wyman. This scene has nothing to do with the rest of the movie but has got to be the ultimate “skipping the pleasantries” monologue I’ve ever heard.

There are so many layers within Larceny Inc. Is the movie a celebration or an indictment on capitalism? The gangsters’ involvement in legitimate business is what makes them renounce their past ways but only after they’ve essentially been seduced and consumed by the capitalist system. Larceny Inc was released in 1942 just months after the US got involved in the war but the film’s production began prior to that with its themes of business and consumerism are completely counterproductive to the war effort, something I’ve noticed with many films released in 1942. There is also the irony that the gangster is the one who brings the community together and the authority figures in the movie are played as fools.

Larceny Inc can also join films like Rocky IV and Die Hard as Christmas movies which aren’t about Christmas, and Edward G Robinson dressed as Santa Claus? Sold!

A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966)

6 Angry Card Players

The opening of A Big Hand for the Little Lady has so much frantic build up, the scoping scenery shots as far as the eye can see with a grand western music score and for what? A game of poker; but rightfully so as this may be the best poker movie I’ll ever see. I don’t know how to play poker nor do I have any interest in cards, but it doesn’t stop me from being absorbed in this fascinating and inspired comedy.

Much humour is derived from Henry Fonda’s performance as a gambling addict who attempts to act naive and innocent in order to mask his addiction; resulting in the man becoming a ticking time bomb and the suspense which derives from watching this guy throwing his livelihood away. At one point in the film, however, it stops being entirely comic in which I start feeling sorry for how pathetic Fonda’s character has become; the effective quick switched between comedy and drama is superb. Backed by a cast of charismatic gents as they bicker and tell outlandish stories of what they abandoned in order to attend the game of poker and take the rules of poker so seriously, even when a man’s life is on the line. The only issue I would take with the film is the unnecessary remaining 10 minutes which drag along after the film’s plot has been resolved.

I’d love to see this concept of a poker game going out of control expanded upon and taken to new heights. Not a remake but the same concept in a different setting and perhaps a bit zanier, I would like to see. The sub-genre of the western comedy intrigues me. Westerns as a whole I find hit and miss but when presented in comedic form I have a much easier time caring about what’s happening on screen.