At this point the Project’s chronicled the rise of a several major stars, Garbo and Dietrich and Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant and Gary Cooper (the latter two guys apparently hated each other, I recently learned), but the rise of Henry Fonda is one that’s really struck me because (and bear in mind I’m writing this late, after seeing the next hundred-odd movies on the List) he starts out in Jezebel with a nuanced role, stiff and strict but also unsure about his rectitude and maybe questioning if he oughta put up with more than he’s willing to, and rather than bursting onto the Hollywood scene with a curtain-tearing performance, he plays it slow. I kinda believed that his character’s modesty in Jezebel, this vibe like he’s gotta behave as an adult without quite feeling that he is one, was informed by Fonda’s own modesty and uncertainty about being on the screen. Maybe I’m wrong about that. But he gets more and more assertive with his roles.
In Grapes of Wrath he plays Tom Joad, a young guy fresh from prison for murder, or maybe it’s manslaughter (he got into a fight and hit the guy with a shovel and the guy died), and Fonda plays him as he comes off in the book: angry; but the anger’s contained. Barely. Looks like it’s calcifying in his face and locking his jaw.
In the first scene, for instance, Tom’s hitchhiking home. He hops into a truck with a stranger, and when their conversation gets around to the topic of Tom being freshly sprung from jail, and the driver starts acting differently, you see this anger welling up so gradually, so believably, in Fonda’s face and demeanor; like it’s this tightly coiled thing inside him that’ll flare up only when he allows it — but he needs to allow it. Otherwise he’ll blow. So he bleeds a little venom here and there so it well up and start leaking from the eyes. (Kinda like that now-famous line in the first Avengers movie — which I think is now sold on DVD with the title Avengers Assemble — when the other heroes need Bruce Banner to turn into the Hulk. Somebody says, “Bruce, now’s a good time to get angry.” And Bruce says, “That’s my secret — I’m always angry,” and proceeds to Hulk-out at will. I wonder if that’s the secret of most great actors, is that they’re super tame and chill in their daily lives, taking every indignity with grace, so that they can wring all that pent-up energy outta their pores once they get in front of a camera.)
The other big star on-screen here in Grapes of Wrath, though he’s technically not on it, is director John Ford, in whom I’ve taken a particular interest after reading Scott Eyman’s biography of him. Ford had worked with Fonda a year earlier on Young Mr. Lincoln, so this movie feels like a natural extension of their relationship, and a year after Grapes of Wrath he’d make How Green Was My Valley (for which he’d famously beat Citizen Kane to the Academy Award for Best Picture) — which feels like a natural extension of his two earlier successes with serious drama. Then a decade down the line he’ll make a deal with Republic Studios that, before making his dramatic romance The Quiet Man, he’ll film a Western with John Wayne, Rio Grande, which’ll hopefully recoup whatever money gets lost with Quiet Man.
Ford’s got these beautiful, powerful, brilliant dramas about family, a topic on which he was obviously very tender, but — as probably a million people’ve already lamented — he’s mostly just recognized for his westerns. The dramas I guess seeming like indulgent little sidesteps into the highbrow.
And it’s because Grapes feels like such a departure from his earlier work, all the cowboy v. Indian stuff, that Ford feels like a presence on screen. I was thinking about him and his temperament and his earlier work and wondering where this came from.
Then after Fonda and Ford there’s the third lead character of cinematographer Gregg Toland, who’s also not technically on the screen, but his photography here is gorgeous, and he shoots the dusty nighttime landscapes in such a way that the Joads’ very existence feels illicit. The family’s heading out west to California in hopes of finding work there, now that the bank’s coming for their land, and at night they’re often whispering, or sneaking around, and there’s something about the blackness of the black, the whiteness of whatever moon or headlight glow.
It’s a great movie and there doesn’t seem to be any major hitter on the cast or crew who should feel anything but pride for what they’ve accomplished here — but, that being said, there’s a vague kinda phoniness to it. Something meta. Because, as I mentioned, the movie’s shot in such a way that it really does feel rusty and dusty, rickety, like we’re being brought along as scavengers alongside the Joads. But there wasn’t really an indie scene at this time. All these actors are well-established. Sophisticates, maybe. Famous.
What comes to mind is director Tobe Hooper saying about his movie The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and its enduring ability to freak people out and make them feel dirty, that the reason you feel kinda sick and grimy while watching it is because those were the circumstances in which the movie was made. It was really hot, the house wasn’t air conditioned, they were out there all day, everyone was miserable. That’s the way to make your audience feel dirty — is to get dirty.
And there’s just something about The Grapes of Wrath that emanates prestige. Like it’s aware of the fact that this is a Serious Story, from a Serious Book. And that prestige seems to chafe against the power of the material.
I don’t think it’s Ford’s fault, though. When you look at How Green Was My Valley or The Quiet Man you can see that he’s able to have a good amount of fun with his dramas if given the chance. But I have a feeling Darryl Zanuck, the producer, was breathing on his neck about this one. “Make em cry, Jack,” an unwanted hand on the lapel, “make em WEEP.”