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John Ford
Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Charley Grapewin, Dorris Bowdon, Russell Simpson, O.Z. Whitehead, John Qualen, Eddie Quillan, Zeffie Tilbury
Writing Credits:
John Steinbeck (novel), Nunnally Johnson

Following a prison term he served for manslaughter, Tom Joad returns to find his family homestead overwhelmed by weather and the greed of the banking industry. With little work potential on the horizon of the Oklahoma dust bowls, the entire family packs up and heads for the promised land - California. But the arduous trip and harsh living conditions they encounter offer little hope, and family unity proves as daunting a challenge as any other they face.

Rated NR

Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
English DTS-HD MA Monaural
Spanish Monaural
French DTS-HD MS Monaural
Castillian DTS-HD MS Monaural
German DTS-HD MS Monaural
Italian DTS-HD MS Monaural

Runtime: 129 min.
Price: $24.99
Release Date: 6/5/2012

• Audio Commentary with Scholars Joseph McBride and Susan Shillinglaw
• UK Prologue
• “Fox Movie Channel Presents Fox Legacy with Tom Rothman” Featurette
• A&E Biography: “Daryl F. Zanuck: 20th Century Filmmaker”
• Movietone News
• Outtakes
• “Roosevelt Lauds Motion Pictures at Academy Fete” Featurette
• Trailer


Panasonic TC-P60VT60 60-Inch 1080p 600Hz 3D Smart Plasma HDTV; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


The Grapes Of Wrath [Blu-Ray] (1940)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 15, 2014)

Back in ninth grade English, we read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. At that age, you usually hate most of what the teachers assign to you, but for some reason, the other kids intensely disliked Wrath. I knew about its negative reputation well before I ever inspected a page of it.

However, I really liked it. To this day I can’t figure out why my early-teen peers so strongly loathed this text, though one would hope that some warmed up to it as they got older. For me, the book activated an interest in Steinbeck. I liked his earthy style and took in a few other of his novels, though I’ve not read Grapes itself since high school.

That made me even more interested to check out John Ford’s 1940 film adaptation of the book. Not that I’ve been totally unfamiliar with the story since high school. Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” takes on the tale’s spirit, and SCTV even did a great parody of the novel called “The Grapes of Mud”.

All of these concern our lead, Tom Joad (Henry Fonda). Set during the Depression, he returns to his sharecropping family in Oklahoma after a four-year stint in prison due to a manslaughter conviction. Along the way, he meets the local preacher Casy (John Carradine) who now wanders aimlessly because he “lost the calling”.

When they get to the old Joad house, Tom discovers no one there. He didn’t write from prison, so he doesn’t know what happened to them. Tom encounters Muley Graves (John Qualen), who tells him that the whole family left two weeks earlier to head toward California. The dust storms made the Oklahoma land untenable, so they want to go to a better life in California. The banks also push people off of their land, and we see how this happened to Muley’s family and sent him over the edge.

We then meet Tom’s family. They include his Pa (Russell Simpson), Ma (Jane Darwell), Grandpa (Charley Grapewin), Uncle John (Frank Darien), cousin Noah (Frank Sully), pregnant sister Rosasharn (Doris Bowdon), her husband Connie (Eddie Quillan), and others. Tom catches up with them at his Uncle John’s place and the whole crew makes for California, though an initially eager Grandpa resists the move so much that they need to get him drunk to subdue him.

That doesn’t matter for long, as Grandpa soon dies of a stroke. They bury him along the way and continue their trek. They maintain high hopes of good wages for fruit pickers, but they encounter a dude who pokes a hole in their dreams, as he indicates that all the jobs are already gone. The Joads decide to find out the truth for themselves, so they continue on their way.

The rest of the film follows the journey. We see the various travails the Joads encounter along the way as well as what fate befalls them when they eventually get to California.

Not surprisingly, it’s not a pretty picture. Grapes doesn’t sugarcoat its subject, as it takes a fairly bleak Depression-era view of things. The poorer classes lead a hard life and get little sympathy. Most of the “haves” in the movie treat the Joads harshly, though some pockets of compassion occur. For example, a stop at a diner starts with rudeness but ends up as more sympathetic.

Interestingly, you don’t see a lot of compassion from our lead, at least not initially. Really, Grapes tells Tom’s personal journey, and I don’t mean the one they traveled from Oklahoma to California. He starts off as isolated and only interested in his limited world-view. Tom cares about his family and nothing else.

However, as the film progresses, Tom begins to open up when he sees the poor treatment of others. By the end, he’s evolved into a true Everyman who exists to look out for the interests of others more so than his own kin.

Fonda portrays Tom well. He offers a nicely frank and unadorned performance, something that benefits the film, especially since so many of the others – especially Darwell and Carradine – tend to present their characters in a very broad, theatrical manner. Fonda grounds the piece with his hard-edged and cool work.

Despite some slightly over-the-top acting, Grapes comes across as surprisingly subdued. Director John Ford keeps things low-key. He uses little music or other embellishment, and Grapes occasionally takes on a documentary tone. It includes too many theatrical shots to seem genuinely true to life – like the image of shadows as Muley’s family gets bumped off their land – but it usually feels honest and blunt.

Overall, the film nicely conveys the impact of business decisions on the individual, though it does this in a somewhat heavy-handed manner. We see a rather idyllic view of the socialistic government work camp, while the business forces come across as unilaterally evil. Still, the film mostly focuses on how these issues affect the Joads and others, so while it beats us over the head to some degree, it feels effective.

That’s probably what The Grapes of Wrath does best. It presents the travails of the poor in a blunt manner that makes it work. With appropriately subdued and concise direction and generally honest performances, the film presents a strong portrait of the dispossessed.

The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B/ Audio C+/ Bonus B

The Grapes of Wrath appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. The movie showed its age a little but usually provided a nice presentation.

Sharpness generally looked positive. Some scenes came across better than others, while a few displayed light softness. Much of the movie seemed nicely distinct and accurate. Jagged edges and moiré effects failed to mar the image, and no edge haloes appeared.

Any noise reduction seemed to be minor, as the film delivered a nice layer of grain, and print flaws were absent. Black levels seemed reasonably dark and dense, though they occasionally seemed a little muddy. Shadow detail was fairly good; some shots could be a little thick, but those weren’t a notable concern. Overall, this was a pleasing image.

As for the film’s DTS-HD MA monaural soundtrack, it seemed relatively satisfying. Though the mix showed its age, it appeared fairly clear. Speech was acceptably natural and distinct, and the effects showed decent clarity and accuracy. Music could be a little rough but was okay given its era; the score seemed moderately dynamic. This wasn’t a great track, but it deserved a “B-“.

How did the Blu-ray compare to the DVD release from 2004? The Blu-ray dropped the DVD’s stereo remix, which was fine with me, as I thought it was pretty lousy. The Blu-ray’s mono track seemed similar to the one on the DVD, though the lossless Blu-ray mix was a little more concise. Visuals showed a more obvious step up, with better definition and fewer flaws.

The Blu-ray includes most of the DVD’s extras. We start with an audio commentary from film scholars Joseph McBride and Susan Shillinglaw. Initially I thought they recorded their running, screen-specific tracks separately, but they clearly interact at times, particularly during the third act. Either they sat together for their discussion – at least part of the time – or the disc’s producers did a great job of faking that feeling.

McBride specializes in John Ford, while Shillinglaw knows about John Steinbeck. Between the two, we get a good feel for the production, the material, and the participants. We learn about the adaptation of the novel, the politics and atmosphere of the era, reception to the book and flick, symbolism and themes, and various elements of the production.

The track moves briskly and gets into quite a few interesting notions. We learn quite a lot about Ford and Steinbeck as well as the period and the project. It’s a consistently informative and useful piece.

We can watch the US theatrical cut or a version with a UK Prologue. This simply adds two screens of text at the start of the flick. Apparently the studio worried that non-US audiences didn’t understand the nature of the “Dust Bowl” enough to allow them to comprehend the story, so these notes offer some background. Personally, I think the movie makes it clear what’s happened, but it’s still kind of interesting to see this addition.

New to the Blu-ray, Fox Movie Channel Presents Fox Legacy with Tom Rothman goes for 24 minutes, 57 seconds. Fox CEO Rothman covers the historical roots of Grapes as well as aspects of the novel, its move to the screen, and related issues. Rothman moves through the topics at a good pace and turns this into an informative piece.

Now we move to an A&E “Biography” episode entitled Darryl F. Zanuck: 20th Century Filmmaker. In this 45-minute, three-second piece, we see movie snippets from Grapes and other Zanuck productions plus archival materials and interviews. The latter include biographer Mel Gussow, daughter Darrylin Zanuck dePineda, film editor William Reynolds, producer/son Richard Zanuck, producer/director Robert Wise, producer David Brown, author/historian Kenneth Anger, and actors Robert Wagner, Red Buttons, Roddy McDowall, and Alice Faye.

As one might expect from a show in the Biography series, “Filmmaker” emphasizes general elements of Zanuck’s life. It covers his rough childhood and moves through his career and personal life. Most of these “Biography” shows concentrate on the latter, and they occasionally come across like tabloid TV.

That doesn’t really occur during “Filmmaker”, as it mostly focuses on Zanuck’s professional career. Oh, we certainly hear about his marital woes and many affairs, but since Zanuck tried to make his ladies into movie stars, even those connect with his work. We get a nice recap of Zanuck’s origins, rise in the film industry, creation of Fox, and ups and downs throughout his long career. It’s a compelling and occasionally poignant examination of one of Hollywood’s legends.

Three Movietone News reels from 1934 appear. We see “Worst Drought In Many Years Hits Middle West” (1:05), “Drought Distress Is Increasing in the Mid-West” (1:01), and “Mid-West Drought Distress Becomes National Disaster” (2:01). These offer a decent look at the historical issues behind Grapes, though I must admit the discrepancy between the distressing news and the peppy music that introduces the clips amuses me.

Also from 1934, Outtakes shows two minutes, 20 seconds of unused footage shot for Movietone News. These bits focus on the government camps set up to help migrant workers. While they don’t tell a direct story, they offer another good look at the conditions of the era. Lastly, a two-minute, 16-second Movietone News clip from 1941 presents “Roosevelt Lauds Motion Pictures at Academy Fete”. This shows the president as he addresses film notables about the good work they do, and we also see some of the Oscar presentation.

The film’s trailer finishes the disc. The Blu-ray drops a still gallery and a restoration comparison from the prior DVD.

A fine retelling of a great book, The Grapes of Wrath holds up well after more than 70 years. The movie occasionally suffers from a few minor issues, but it connects with its source material to provide a low-key and powerful take on the Depression. The Blu-ray gives us good picture, audio and bonus features. The Blu-ray becomes the strongest version of the film to hit home video.

To rate this film, visit the 2004 DVD review of THE GRAPES OF WRATH

Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main