Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
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Plot Synopsis (continued)

In a memorable, powerful candle-lit scene (without dialogue) during the pre-dawn hours, accompanied by the plaintive strains of "Red River Valley" on an accordion, Ma Joad must decide which of her seemingly worthless possessions to keep from her hope chest and which to leave behind before vacating her farm for the last time. Wordlessly and nostalgically, she moons, reminisces and sorts through a small box of momentos and souvenirs she has acquired over the years. She burns a postcard and a newspaper clipping of Tom's imprisonment ("Joad Gets Seven Years") and other valuable keepsakes which she cannot take with her, giving up parts of her past that are now irretrievably lost. With pathos in a scene of tremendous, sharp-edged visual power, she holds up two earrings to her ears and wistfully looks at her reflection, thinking back to some unforgotten moments of pleasure.

In the early morning light, she resolutely tells Tom: "I'm ready." As the family boards the overloaded, unbalanced truck, Old Grampa Joad suddenly resists leaving for California (but earlier, he couldn't wait to leave). He stubbornly revolts and balks to leave his land at the last moment. The family subdues him and gets him sleepy drunk by pouring a large dose of the children's soothing syrup down his throat:

Grampa: I ain't goin' to California. This is my country and I belong here. (He scoops up and clutches a lifeless handful of Oklahoma dirt) This is my dirt. It's no good, but it's mine, all mine.
Tom: Either we got to tie him up and throw him in the truck or somethin'. He can't stay here.
Pa: We can't tie him. Either we'll hurt him or he'll get so mad, he'll hurt hisself. Reckon we could get him drunk?
Tom: Ain't no whiskey, is there?
Ma Joad: Now wait, there's a half a bottle of soothin' syrup here. Here. Used to put the children to sleep.

At the last minute, Casy (who has expressed an interest in going: "There's somethin' goin' on out there in the West and I'd like to try and learn what it is") is invited by the family to join them, even though they have already hurriedly calculated that the truck is dangerously overloaded. In the cab of the truck as they depart, Ma Joad is indomitable and refuses to look back at the dust storm rising over the deserted house. Resigned to forces beyond her control, she gripes to Al the driver:

We're goin' to California, ain't we? All right then, let's go to California...I never had my house pushed over before. Never had my family stuck out on the road. Never had to lose everything I had in life.

Along Highway 66 (conveyed in a short montage of images of road signs in Oklahoma) - "the Mother Road", the trip soon takes its toll on the family. Tired and weak after being wrenched away from his land, elderly Grampa is the first to die on their journey. He expires after they pull over to the side of the road and unload him. Tom writes (and reads outloud) a grave marker for him, torn out of the flyleaf of the family Bible:

This here is William James Joad, dyed of a stroke, old, old man. His fokes bured him because they got no money to pay for funerls. Nobody kilt him. Jus a stroke and he dyed.

He puts the paper in a fruit jar to be buried with his grandfather by the roadside, to prevent the government from thinking it's a murder: "It looks like a lotta times, the gov'ment got more interest in a dead man than a live one." Casy eulogizes the old patriarch with a "few words" over the grave - a brief but dignified funeral oration to plea for the salvation of the living:

This here ol' man jus' lived a life an' jus' died out of it. I don't know whether he was good or bad, an' it don't matter much. Heard a fella say a poem once, an' he says, 'All that lives is holy.' But I wouldn't pray jus' for an ol' man that's dead, cause he's awright. If I was to pray, I'd pray for folks that's alive an' don't know which way to turn. Grampa here, he ain't got no more trouble like that. He's got his job all cut out for 'im - so cover 'im up an' let 'im get to it.

More montages of signs appear along the way, e.g., "Water 15¢" and "Camp 50¢". In a migrant campground, possibly in the Texas panhandle, the Joads camp for the night and are entertained in the flickering light by Connie, Rosasharn's husband, who accompanies himself on a guitar and sings I Ain't A-Gonna Be A-Treated This A-way. During the song, Pa Joad strikes up a conversation with another fellow migrant from Arkansas who had to give up "a kind of a general notions store." The man speaks nostalgically about his lost store: "I had as nice of a little store as you ever saw. I sure did hate to give it up."

Another man in the group, a returning migrant from California, laughs scornfully at Pa's delusionary optimism about conditions in the West and speaks bitterly about his tragic experience. He foreshadows what the Joads and others will soon find out for themselves, that the California growers, who have printed more handbills than they need, are hoping to attract a glut of workers that they can then exploit (with the laws of supply and demand):

Migrant: I've been and seen it. I'm goin' back and starve, because I'd rather starve all over at once.
Pa: Say, what do you think you're talkin' about? I've got a handbill here says they're payin' good wages. And I seen in the papers that they need pickers.
Migrant: All right, go on, nobody's stoppin' ya.
Pa: Yeah, but what about this?
Migrant: I ain't gonna rile ya, go on.
Tom: (challenging) Wait a minute, buddy, you just done some jack-assin'. You can't shut up now! The handbill say they need 800 pickers. You laugh and say they don't. Which one's a liar?
Migrant: Now, how many of you all got them handbills?...(The men respond that they all have them) There you are, same yellow handbill. 800 Pickers Wanted. All right, the man wants 800 men, so he prints 5,000 handbills and maybe 20,000 people see 'em. And maybe two or three thousand people start West on account of that handbill. Two or three thousand people that are crazy with worry headin' out for 800 jobs. Now does that make sense?
One of the men: Say, what are you, a trouble-maker? You sure you ain't one of them labor finks?
Migrant: I swear I ain't, mister.
One of the men: Now don't you go around here tryin' to stir up any trouble.
Migrant: I tried to tell you folks what it took me a year to fin' out. Took two kids dead, took my wife dead, to show me. But nobody could tell me neither. I can't tell ya about them little fellas layin' in the tent with their bellies swelled out and just skin over their bones. A-shiverin' and a-whinin' like pups. And me a-runnin' around lookin' for work. Not for money, not for wages, just for a cup of flour and a spoon of lard. Then the coroner come. 'Them children died of heart failure,' he said. He put it down in his paper. Heart failure! And their little bellies stuck out like a pig bladder.

The migrant's sobering words and experience shake the group, and the distressed campers breaks up for the night. Pa asks Casy and Tom whether they think the man was telling the truth. The Joad's future is still ambiguous and in question:

Casy: He's tellin' the truth, the truth for him. He wasn't makin' it up.
Tom: Is it the truth for us?
Casy: I don't know.

The Joad truck overheats and steams up as it pulls into a New Mexico filling station. There, the service station owner asks contemptuously whether they have money to pay for the gas. Tom responds sharply and with pride to the animosity: "Well, ask right. You ain't talkin' to bums, you know." In the truckstop diner, in one of the film's most upbeat, hopeful scenes displaying good folks who compassionately help the poor, a waitress is joshing around with two truck drivers at the counter. Pa Joad enters with the two young Joad kids and asks to purchase a loaf of bread for a dime. The condescending waitress replies: "This ain't a grocery store. We got bread to make sandwiches with...Why don't you buy a sandwich? We got nice sandwiches...You can't buy no loaf of bread for a dime. We only got fifteen cent loafs." Charitably, the short-order cook Bert (Harry Tyler) behind the counter gruffly suggests selling Pa a day-old loaf for a dime. After the waitress generously and kindly obliges the two migrant kids with cheap candy, the two drivers leave her a big tip to 'repay' her:

Pa: It may sound funny bein' so tight, but we got a thousand miles to go and we don't know if we'll make it. (As he goes to pay for the loaf) Is them penny candies, m'am?
Waitress: Which ones?
Pa: There, them stripey ones.
Waitress: Oh, them, well, uh, no. Them's two for a penny.
Pa: Give us two then, m'am. (To the children) Go on, take 'em, take 'em. Thank ya, m'am.
Truck driver: (After the Joads have left) Them ain't two for a cent candy.
Waitress: What's it to you?
Truck driver: Them's a nickel a piece candy...(Both truck drivers leave her hefty tips, a half-dollar coin, when they pay for their meals)
Waitress: Hey wait a minute, you got change comin'!
Truck driver: What's it to ya?
Waitress: (While holding the coins in her hand) Bert, look! (reverently looking after her customers) Truck drivers.

As the Joads drive further and cross the state border into Arizona, Tom explains to the state agricultural inspection officer how long they will be in the state: "No longer than to get across." On the Will Rogers Highway in Arizona, they pass by herds of sheep and the adobe-mud hunts of an Indian village - past other land-dispossessed families and individuals. At the Colorado River, the border between Arizona and California, they pull over and are awed by a view of California in the distance - "the land of milk and honey." Connie is frightened by the desolate desert that they are forced to cross: "Well, if that's what we came out here for!..." They swim, cavort, and refresh themselves in the Colorado River.

At another service station, one of the disdainful white-uniformed attendants criticizes the Joad's trip - one of many being taken by indigent Okies who are streaming toward California. He ominously mentions the obstacles that are facing them across the desert, but Tom replies with practicality and strength:

Attendant: You people got a lot of nerve...crossing the desert in a jalopy like this.
Pa: You been across?
Attendant One: Sure, plenty but never in no wreck like that.
Tom: If we break down, maybe somebody'll give us a hand.
Attendant One: Well, I'm glad. Even I'd hate to be doin' it. It takes more nerve than I got.
Tom: It take no nerve to do somethin' ain't nothin' else you can do.

Delirious (calling for her dead husband) and near death, Granma is comforted by Ma Joad, who strokes her brow. As the Joads pull away from the Last Chance service station, the two insensitive and cruel uniformed attendants inhumanly despise the migrant Okies as they chew gum and carry on a casual conversation:

Attendant Two: You and me got sense. Them Okies got no sense and no feelings. They ain't human. A human being wouldn't live the way they do. A human being couldn't stand to be so miserable.
Attendant One: Just don't know any better, I guess.

As they pass through the desert, the three riders in the truck's cab are seen through the windshield upon which the desert is reflected:

Al: What a place! How'd ya like to walk across it?
Tom: People done it. They could. We could.
Al: Lots must have died too.

The youngest Joad children fantasize about finding the bones of those who crossed the desert and died. Ma Joad encourages Granma: "We got to get across, Granma. The family's got to get across." Connie complains to Rosasharn about his disappointment that he didn't become a radio mechanic ("nice clean work") instead of moving and taking the trip. At another agricultural inspection station, the California officers want the Joads to unload their truck, but Ma protests that Granma is a "sick old lady" and must be rushed to a doctor: "I swear we ain't got anything, I swear it." They are allowed to proceed when an ever-resourceful Ma Joad convinces the caring officers that Granma is deathly ill. In reality, she has lied to them because the old lady has already died in her lap.

The Joads push the truck up a long hill to bring the family to a scenic overlook, where they gaze at the natural beauty of the Tehachapi Valley of California at dawn. Pa exclaims, "Thar she is." In contrast to the climactic, joyous, glowing end of their trip, Ma quietly announces that Granma has died earlier in her arms in the back of the truck during the night, even before the inspectors had stopped them en route: "Oh, thank God, and we're still together, most of us...Granma's dead...since before they stopped us last night...So it's all right. She'll get buried where it's nice and green and trees and flowers all around, and she got to lay her head down in California after all."

After pushing their dysfunctional, out-of-gas, anguished jalopy [a symbol of their exhausting trip] into Plainview, California, a friendly policeman (Ward Bond) (an Oklahoma native himself) greets them with a weary defensiveness when shown their handbill. The working conditions are unlike what the handbills had advertised:

Policeman: If I've seen one of them things, I've seen ten thousand of 'em.
Pa: Ain't it no good?
Policeman: Not here, not now. There was some pickin' around here about a month ago, but it's all moved south...What I gotta tell ya is this, don't try to park in town tonight. Just go right on out to that camp. If I catch ya in town after dark, I gotta lock ya up.
Pa: But what are we gonna do?
Policeman: Well pop, that just ain't up to me. I don't mind tellin' ya the guy they ought to lock up is the guy that sent them things out.

[Almost one-half of the film's 128 minutes (the second half of the film) are the sequences at three contrasting camps in California - the Hooverville (14 minutes), the Keene Ranch (22 minutes), and the Wheat Patch government camp (25 minutes). For the remainder of the film, the Joads are forced to move through different kinds of communal life, from squalid transient camps to labor camps, searching for decent wages and scarce jobs.]

The Hooverville Transient-Migrant Camp:

They arrive at the first, transient migrant camp two miles from the city limits (a sign reads "City Limit" - both literally and figuratively). In a memorably effective subjective camera view through the Joad's windshield from the cab, they realize that the camp is crowded with other hungry, starving, jobless and desperate travelers. The jalopy slowly and uneasily makes its careful way through the rutted dirt road between the huts and around the camp's haunted-faced inhabitants, who move in slow-motion and size up the new arrivals. Their first exposure to the human junkyard is truly despairing, as Tom ironically observes: "Sure don't look none too prosperous." With only a gallon of gas, they are forced to join the utterly hopeless scene of anarchy, confusion, squalor and disillusionment.

After setting up the tent, Ma Joad finds starving children surrounding and besieging her when they gather around her campfire and watch or offer to help, in order to get a handout of stew. She is overwhelmed but willing to share the family's meager leftovers with them: "Well, I don't know what to do. I've got to feed the family and what are we gonna do about all these here?" The Joads are disturbed by the face of poverty - shown by a lingering view of the children's faces, but willing to help care for them.

In a contrasting scene, one of the land contractors who hires migrant laborers drives into the camp in a shiny convertible and offers employment picking fruit. One of the disgruntled migrants named Floyd (Paul Guilfoyle) asks to see the contractor's license and credentials. "Then you make out an order, where and when and how much you're gonna pay, and you sign it and we'll go." Knowledge about the unfair laws of supply and demand, Floyd accuses the employer of cheating the desperate men with his solicitation:

Twice now I fell for that line. Maybe he needs a thousand men. So he gets five thousand there and he'll pay fifteen cents an hour. Then you guys will have to take it, cause you'll be hungry. If he wants to hire men, let him ride it out and say what he's gonna pay. Ask to see his license. He ain't allowed by law to contract men without a license.

In one of the film's most powerful examples of man's inhumanity to man, the contractor identifies and labels Floyd as an "agitator" to a gun-toting sheriff's deputy who accompanies him. The officer falsely accuses the man with trumped-up charges - of "hangin' around that used car lot that was busted into. Yep, that's the fella!" Floyd is ordered into custody, but he resists arrest and slugs the deputy in the mouth - and then flees during the scuffle. The brutish sheriff shoots and mistakenly wounds (mortally) an innocent bystander - a mother in the camp - in a bungled effort to stop his flight.

As he pursues Floyd, Tom and Casy intervene. Tom tackles the sheriff and Casy kicks him in the head to knock him unconscious. Casy forces Tom, because he is violating his parole by migrating, to hide out in the willows and return only if signaled with "four high whistles." When a carload of hostile deputies pulls up, Casy takes the blame for the entire incident: "This man of yours, he got tough so I hit him. Then he started shootin' and hit that woman there so I hit him again." He is subsequently handcuffed (after offering his two wrists) and driven away. One of the law-enforcement deputies is dismayed by the shooting, but is little concerned about the dying woman:

Boy, what a mess them .45s make.

That evening, Tom sneaks back into the camp with word that the family must hurriedly pack and move out because a mob is planning to burn down the camp:

A guy down at the willows was just tellin' me some of them poolroom fellas figgerin' on burnin' the whole camp out tonight. We gotta get the truck loaded.

Tom learns that Rosasharn's husband Connie has deserted them and his pregnant wife:

Ma Joad: He lit out this evenin'. Said he didn't know it was gonna be like this.
Pa Joad: Glad to get shet of him. Never was no good, never will be.

Tom tries to console Rosesharn who is distraught and feeling abandoned: "I just don't feel like nothin' at all. Without him, I just don't wanna live." As they leave, Rosasharn speculates: "Maybe Connie go and get some books to study up with. He gonna be a radio expert, you know. Maybe he figgured to surprise us." Ma Joad encourages her delusionary rationalization.

His smoldering frustration now heated up, Tom is angered by the senseless, arbitrary violence, exploitation of the migrant workers, and the degradation of his spirit by human selfishness and cruelty:

Tom: Ma, there comes a time when a man gets mad.
Ma: You told me, you promised me...
Tom: I know, Ma, I'm tryin' to. If there was a law they was workin' with, maybe we could take it but it ain't the law. They're workin' away on our spirits, tryin' to make us cringe and crawl, workin' on our decency.
Ma: You promised Tom.
Tom: I know, I'm a-tryin' to, Ma...
Ma: You gotta keep clear. The family's a-breakin' up. You gotta keep clear.

Their truck is halted by a roadblock composed of a mob of angry vigilantes. Although Tom is ready to strike back with a jackhandle, Ma begs him to be subservient and let the danger pass. With a flashlight shining in their faces, the Okie family is confronted and ordered by the prejudiced mob to disperse or face destruction: "We don't want no more Okies in this town. There ain't enough work here for them that's already here...Turn right around and head north, and don't you come back until the cotton's ready."

The next day, the Joad vehicle pulls over to fix a flat tire. As they work on the repair, another man named Spencer (Robert Homans) in a shiny open convertible drives by, stops, and offers them work picking peaches "about forty miles up here just this side of Pixley." As they approach the Keene fruit ranch and pass through an assembled gauntlet outside the gates - a murmuring mob of motorcycle police, striking farmers, and migrant trucks - they are waved through without being told what's wrong. They are apprehensive and confused by the apparent conspiracy of silence.

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