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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Vacation (1983)

Getting Away From It All

The noble all American pursuit of taking your family on vacation (or holiday as we call it in the UK); that is the ultimate aim of Clark Griswold. Chevy Chase is Clark Griswold in one of those roles which is so identified with one actor. He’s such a family man in an extreme yet subtly comic way with is repressed frustration making him a ticking time bomb. He’s a proponent of the American dream if there ever was one; an unashamedly white Anglo Saxon protestant who takes family ideals a little too far at times.

Vacation is my favourite John Hughes movie and a very American movie at that. You can’t do this in the UK; here you can hop in your car and you will be at the other end of the country in a day. It seems like the idea of a road trip was designed for the vast open country of the United States in which you drive for days on end. However, the theme of vacation (or holiday) frustration is relatable to anyone who has been on vacation. As Clark puts it “When I was a boy just about every summer we would take a vacation, and you know in 18 years, we never had fun”. Even the most out there jokes such as the car still moving while Clark has fallen asleep at the wheel or the death of the aunt still manage to feel relatable to some degree and remain grounded in reality.

Road movies give some of the best opportunity to create great amounts of character development and I feel there are few other writers in cinema history who had the ability to generate so much character development within such a short space of time than John Hughes; and like The Blues Mobile of The Blues Brothers, the car in Vacation is a character itself. As seen in many of Hughes’ film, the kids and/or young people are fully sexually aware (In Vacation Rusty’s cousin teaches him about masturbation for the first time) which I find liberating to watch as Hughes is a writer who treats young people like adults with themes which were explored further in films like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. Sigh, why wasn’t I a child of the 80’s?

Vacation is one of the most summery movies; watch it during the cold months of the year to escape the winter blues.

They Drive By Night (1940)

We’ve Got a Great Big Convoy Running Through the Night!

They Drive By Night captures the seedy and often dangerous world of the truck driver; the lack of sleep, the long distances to travel, the time missed with family, the comradery between truckers. The movie definitely highlights the dangers of trucking from the risk of falling asleep at the wheel, which in part lends itself to one very thrilling action sequence. With Warner Bros being the master of social commentary pictures, I enjoy movies like this which give you an insight into the lives of the lower class at the time; people trying to get by a day at a time with clearly little money to spare.

Thirty minutes into the picture we meet Ida Lupino, in my view possibly the epitome of the tough dame. Talk about a star-making performance, she owns the show as soon as she enters the picture. Every time she is in frame it’s hard to take your eyes off her as struts, poses and applies makeup to herself, even when her comedic foil of a husband Alan Hale is in frame acting like a buffoon. Her most notable scene in the film is one of the greatest, most gloriously over the top on-screen breakdowns ever committed to film. Charles Manson blamed The Beatles, Ida Lupino blamed the doors. Seeing Bogart as a family man is odd at first, the total opposite of his persona he would have in films such as those with Lauren Bacall. But he fits comfortably into the role, showing how adaptable an actor he was. George Raft is the weakest player out of the four stars, I’ve never seen Raft as much of an actor, but playing alongside these heavyweights manages to bring out the best in him.

What is the overall plot of They Drive By Night? There isn’t one; there’s no three-act structure. It’s almost like getting two movies for the price of one, with the first half focusing on trucking and the second half focusing on a murder. Comparing the two you wouldn’t think this is the same movie, but the odd combination works and makes for a unique viewing experience.