DVD Movie Guide @ dvdmg.com
Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main


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

This remarkable film version of John Steinbeck's novel was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actor (Henry Fonda), Film Editing, Sound and Writing. John Ford won the Best Director Oscar and Jane Darwell won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Ma Joad, the matriarch of the struggling migrant farmer family.

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

Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Stereo
English Monaural
Spanish Monaural

Runtime: 129 min.
Price: $14.98
Release Date: 4/6/2004

• Audio Commentary with Scholars Joseph McBride and Susan Shillinglaw
• UK Prologue
• A&E Biography: “Daryl F. Zanuck: 20th Century Filmmaker”
• Movietone News
• Outtakes
• Still Gallery
• “Roosevelt Lauds Motion Pictures at Academy Fete” Featurette
• Restoration Comparison
• Trailers


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


[an error occurred while processing this directive]

The Grapes Of Wrath: Fox Studio Classics (1940)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 5, 2004)

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 make you read, but for some reason, the other kids really 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 texts, 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” offers a capture of the tale’s spirit, and SCTV even did a great parody of the tale 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 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, he 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. 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 DVD Grades: Picture B-/ Audio C-/ Bonus B+

The Grapes of Wrath appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this double-sided, DVD-14; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Grapes didn’t stand as a great transfer, but it mostly seemed good for its age.

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 cropped up on a few occasions but remained rare and unproblematic. Unfortunately, some noticeable edge enhancement appeared occasionally, a factor that made some shots softer than I’d like. These also presented some moderately prominent halos at times.

Though not without flaws, the film looked pretty good for such an old movie. The occasional examples of speckles, spots and grit appeared, but these remained fairly minor, especially given the age of the flick. Some flickering occurred at times. Black levels seemed reasonably dark and dense, though they occasionally seemed a little muddy. Shadow detail was one of the less successful elements, especially when Tom first arrives at his old homestead. The storm shots and nighttime images at the house were awfully dark. Other night images also came across as somewhat thick. In general, a lot of Grapes looked good, but a few concerns – particularly the annoying edge enhancement – knocked my grade down to a “B-“.

The soundfield of the stereo soundtrack displayed little sense of spatial accuracy. It mostly seemed like broad mono; the material didn’t appear firmly placed in the center, but it also didn’t come across as well located in other realms. Some mushiness occurred, as elements occasionally bled to various spots. Still, it mostly felt like mono material spread uncomfortably across the three front channels.

Audio quality for the stereo mix didn’t seem terribly good either. The track suffered from an excessive sense of reverb that made everything sound like it was recorded in a tunnel. This ended up with a boomy feel that added an odd feeling of low-end. Speech was somewhat rough though still intelligible. Effects and music were bass-heavy and didn’t come across as very realistic. Granted, I don’t expect terrific accuracy from such an old mix, but this one’s looseness caused problems. It also showed a moderate amount of hiss, though I didn’t mind that terribly. The reverberation caused the greatest level of distractions.

Happily, the included monaural soundtrack seemed much more satisfying. Though the mix showed its age, it appeared quite clear and pleasing. Speech was vastly more natural and distinct, and the audio lacked that horrible sense of echo and coldness that tainted the stereo version. Some hiss still appeared, and at times the mix seemed a little harsh, but overall I found the mono track to seem fine for its age. It’s definitely the only acceptable option for Grapes, and I’d give it a “B-”.

Grapes continues the Fox Studio Classics tradition of nice 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 DVD’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.

Also on Side One, we find the film’s 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.

Now we move to Side Two and open with an A&E “Biography” episode entitled Darryl F. Zanuck: 20th Century Filmmaker. In this 45-minute 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”, “Drought Distress Is Increasing in the Mid-West”, and “Mid-West Drought Distress Becomes National Disaster”. 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 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 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.

We get a collection of ads. The disc includes the theatrical trailer for Grapes as well as promos for other Studio Classics. That domain contains promos for All About Eve, An Affair to Remember, Anastasia, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and My Darling Clementine.

In the Still Gallery we get 16 images. These include some promotional photos, ads, and candid shots from the set. Finally, a Restoration Demonstration provides text that covers the work done for this DVD and then shows splitscreen images of a mix of different versions of the film.

A fine retelling of a great book, The Grapes of Wrath holds up well after more than 60 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 DVD offers erratic but generally solid picture with a weak stereo remix; however, the original mono track also appears, and it fares much better. The list of extras isn’t long, but the included materials seem strong; both the audio commentary and documentary are excellent. Especially given its extremely low list price of only $14.98, The Grapes of Wrath falls into the “must buy” category.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.4324 Stars Number of Votes: 37
2 3:
View Averages for all rated titles.