Optimism in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath

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An exhibition of fundamental American optimism, The Grapes of Wrath follows and exemplifies the resilience of the lower class over the hardships of class prejudice. Director John Ford blends the harsh austerity of John Steinbecks 1939 political novel with his own strong populist and republican beliefs, leaning on the genuinity of his actors and of the camera to sculpt a simple and believable interpretation. Ford uses the severe candor of life during the Great Depression as an operative device in his film; using its simplicity and soft sadness as an element to aid in imitation.

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The Grapes of Wrath teems with examples of Fords affinity for visual expression. Unreliant on verbal cues as a means of communication, Ford illustrates the specific characteristics of each of his characters solely by the way that they exist; how they stand, their reaction to the land as they pass through. For example, Ma Joads cleaning up of the old house is shown without dialogue, but her careful discovery of a forgotten pair of earrings and subsequent wistful longing for an easier past could hardly be better expressed with words.

The Joads journey across the country is made predominantly in silence, but depicted all the more impactfully because of this focus on the actors physical and internal emotions as opposed to those spoken. Fords choice incorporation of many of these elements is indicative of a deep understanding and connection that he felt with the extraordinary qualities of the ordinary American. He intentionally hones in on this awareness, focusing on the genuine and simplistic facets of the story to achieve a more realistic film.Specifically, Ford depends hugely on the actors and the effect that purely their acting can have on the film without concentrating too much on screenplay or cinematic elements. He hires an all-star cast of performers, but establishes that they are all picturesque as well as plausible. There is John Qualen as Mulee, a fugitive on his own land, John Carradine as Casey, the preyed upon preacher, and Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, the wise, matriarchal figure who defines the movie more so than Tom Joad ever could. These faces appear to belong so naturally with their characters that the audience sympathizes all the more easily with the family and with the story in general.

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