by Betty Owens
I think it really started at a library, when I picked up a John Steinbeck book, turned it over, and read the back cover. I was hooked. I took it home, all by its lonesome self, because it was a thick one. I was glad, since it needed my full attention. I was mesmerized by this Pulitzer Prize-winning story. Realism. Almost too real. But it left its mark.
When the movie showed up on television, of course I wanted to watch it. Henry Fonda was high on my list of favorite actors because of his skill, and his voice. He had a wonderful voice and seemed able to transform himself into whatever character he played.
So when I sat down in front of our black-and-white television to watch The Grapes of Wrath, it seemed as though I’d been sucked up into the story and was living it as it happened. I think it helped that I had actually been to some of the places they passed on their long journey to California. My family traversed Route 66 more times than I can remember, back and forth, from southern California to Tennessee.
The Grapes of Wrath world. This was a time when migrant workers were usually American citizens, leaving Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl portion of its history. They were called “Okies,” and they were en route to the “promised land” that was southern California, the land of milk and honey.
My fascination with the story may also have stemmed from my familiarity with the stories of suffering during the Great Depression. My grandparents often talked about the time. They described hardships that I couldn’t imagine. My maternal grandmother suffered from “nerves” which could have been panic attacks. A native of Oklahoma, she later settled in Seattle, as far away as possible from the dust bowl region. She would happily live out the rest of her years with frequent rain.
Another reason I so readily identified with this story–the characters reminded me of my family. Some of my elders spoke the same language, and had the same chiseled, well-tanned leather skin. They’d spent most of their lives outdoors, wrestling a living from the soil, yet most of them didn’t own the land they worked. They were tenants who paid with a portion of their crops. When times were bad, they just might be homeless. Again. It was a constant threat.
The plight of the Joad family grabbed my heart and squeezed it as one bad thing after another threatened to steal their very breath. Life can be that way sometimes. Hardships seem to cluster and swell then ebb away like the tide.
Seeing the story on film made it real. Years later, I’d watch The Dust Bowl, a PBS production by Ken Burns. It still stirred me and I remembered the first time I read The Grapes of Wrath. It was just fiction, but seeing the movie made it real. Seeing The Dust Bowl made it even more real. This happened. It’s history. They showed photographs that tore at my heart and talked to actual survivors. It brought home my family’s suffering and I remembered their stories, told to me when I was a child.
The Grapes of Wrath is gritty realism delivered in black-and-white, a classic, made in 1940. Directed by John Ford and stars Henry Fonda, as Tom Joad.
What makes a movie unforgettable for you? The characters? The subject matter?
If you could walk onto the set of a movie, past or present, which movie would you choose, and why?
Copy of book: “JohnSteinbeck TheGrapesOfWrath” by New York: Viking – image, page. Via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:JohnSteinbeck_TheGrapesOfWrath.jpg#/media/File:JohnSteinbeck_TheGrapesOfWrath.jpg)