Home / General / This Day in Labor History: March 15, 1940

This Day in Labor History: March 15, 1940



On March 15, 1940, John Ford’s film version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, was released to universal acclaim. This was perhaps the greatest moment of the cultural left during the Great Depression. Of all the New Deal-era art that broadly made up the Popular Front, none were more well-remembered and beloved than the book and film versions of The Grapes of Wrath, despite and possibly because neither Ford nor Steinbeck was closely associated with that movement.

Steinbeck’s powerful 1939 novel was a sensation. Its tale of the Joads and their bitter journey from Oklahoma to California in search of work and a new life was a huge hit. Produced at the tail end of the worst economic crisis in American history, it galvanized attention on the plight of the so-called Okies, even if it didn’t lead to any policy to alleviate their problems, despite the fact that the book and the film both played up the Resettlement Administration camp that treated people decently, with the film even going into a closeup on the RA logo. The plight of white migrants to California had received a good bit of attention from artists, most notably in the photographs of Dorothea Lange. These migrants, more victims of New Deal farm policy that encouraged consolidation and industrial farming than the Dust Bowl, as most, including the fictional Joads, originated well east of the Dust Bowl, were part of the national crisis of the Great Depression, which led to a lot of hand-wringing, no shortage of fear, and a belated and relatively small government response to provide relief for these small farmers. The Grapes of Wrath focused national attention on their plight, especially with the release of the film.

John Ford was a brilliant choice to direct the film adaptation. Although today best known for his often racist westerns, he was more of a broad believer in a salt of the earth white populism that simply assumed a Turnerian view of history (which was almost ubiquitous during the New Deal among intellectuals, politicians, and artists. That is on full display in the film. The original New York Times review well-summarizes the popular reception to it:

We know the question you are asking, have been asking since the book was acquired for filming: Does the picture follow the novel, how closely and how well? The answer is that it has followed the book; has followed it closely, but not with blind, undiscriminating literalness; has followed it so well that no one who has read and admired it should complain of the manner of its screen telling. Steinbeck’s language, which some found too shocking for tender eyes, has been cleaned up, but has not been toned so high as to make its people sound other than as they are. Some phases of his saga have been skimped and some omitted; the book’s ending has been dropped; the sequence of events and of speeches has been subtly altered.

The changes sound more serious than they are, seem more radical than they are. For none of them has blurred the clarity of Steinbeck’s word-picture of the people of the Dust Bowl. None of them has rephrased, in softer terms, his matchless description of the Joad family’s trek from Oklahoma to California to find the promised land where work was plenty, wages were high and folk could live in little white houses beside an orange grove. None of them has blunted the fine indignation or diluted the bitterness of his indictment of the cruel deception by which an empty stew-pot was substituted for the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end. And none of them has—as most of us feared it might—sent the film off on a witch hunt, let it pretend there had just been a misunderstanding, made it end on the sunrise of a new and brighter day.

Steinbeck’s story might have been exaggeration; at least some will take comfort in thinking so. But if only half of it were true, that half still should constitute a tragedy of modern America, a bitter chapter of national history that has not yet been closed, that has, as yet, no happy ending, that has thus far produced but two good things: a great American novel (if it is truly a novel) and a great American motion picture.

Henry Fonda as Tom Joad was classic casting. With his flat Midwestern accent and good looks, he personified the prototype of the All-American young man, an image he would build upon for his entire career (and of course play against type in Once Upon a Time in the West, nearly 30 years later). His ideological transformation from rough and tumble Oklahoma white to organizer and lefty is a story of what happens to people when they are beaten down enough. Sure, grandpa dies, the brother-in-law runs away, and the family falls apart. Preacher Casey gets murdered by the farm owner thugs. But the struggle continues. Ma keeps the rest of the family together (and Jane Darwell was brilliant in this role) and Tom builds on Casey’s legacy, not as an ideological radical but as a man seeking answers to the poverty of his life.

Steinbeck himself was thrilled with the film version, writing “No punches were pulled. In fact….it is a harsher thing than the book.” And as great as the book is, the film is better as it distills the key points with great power while rewriting the book’s dark and somewhat gratuitous ending to provide some sort of hope at the end, as opposed to the flood and endless despair of the last section of the book.

The film and the book both make one huge and regrettable error, which is erasing non-white labor from the land. California was not this agricultural paradise where everyone could eat all the oranges they wanted. Those farmers had always sought cheap, exploitable labor, whether Mexican, Filipino, Japanese, or Okie. It was to serve these farmers that Mexico was exempt from the 1924 Immigration Act. They recruited labor from the Philippines after Japanese migration ended. Those immigrants would play a key role in the history of farmworker organizing. The Bracero Program would be a solution for the disappearance of white labor from the fields during World War II. But neither Steinbeck nor Ford had any interest in these non-whites at all and their stories and histories are a very conspicuous absence.

In the past, I’ve wondered what would have happened to Tom Joad in the future. I still say that had he not been thrown in jail for life by the cops or killed as an organizer, he would have fought in the Marines in World War II. Had he survived, he and his family would be working in the California defense plants like many other Depression era migrant whites, he would have bought a home in Orange County, and probably voted for Goldwater in 1964.

This is the 173rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • rea

    On March 15, 1940, John Ford’s film version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, to universal acclaim.

    nonverbal communication

  • Rob in CT

    And as great as the book is, the film is better as it distills the key points with great power while rewriting the book’s dark and somewhat gratuitous ending to provide some sort of hope at the end, as opposed to the flood and endless despair of the last section of the book.

    Erik, are you feeling ok?

    In the past, I’ve wondered what would have happened to Tom Joad in the future. I still say that had he not been thrown in jail for life by the cops or killed as an organizer, he would have fought in the Marines in World War II. Had he survived, he and his family would be working in the California defense plants like many other Depression era migrant whites, he would have bought a home in Orange County, and probably voted for Goldwater in 1964.

    Oh, ok, I was worried for a second. That’s our Erik.

    • ha ha

      • cpinva

        given his history, why do you think Tom would have voted for Goldwater in ’64? does he get called back to his unit during the Korean War, and confront the evils o’ communism up close and personal like, which completely changes his entire political perspective?

        • White solidarity trumps class solidarity.

          • LeeEsq

            Tom might have been an exception to the rule but your right as a general pattern. I think its a bigger problem with white solidarity trumping class solidarity though. That’s how the problem expresses itself in the United States because of American demographics. In other countries, you have the same problem but it gets expressed differently. What I would say the real issue is that in heterogeneous cultures, ethnic or religious identity will triumph class solidarity.

          • Just_Dropping_By

            You do realize that, to win by the landslide he did, a clear majority of white people had to have voted for LBJ in ’64, right?

  • Derelict

    Growing up in the ’60s and early ’70s, many kids in my school had grandparents and parents who lived through the Great Depression. They remembered it all too well. When The Grapes of Wrath was shown to us in high school (every 10th-grade class watched it as part of the Social Studies curriculum), we had teachers who could reinforce its message, along with family who could directly relate their own experiences. It made for powerful stuff and helped convince me that this country needs more socialism.

    (Slightly OT, but my town also had a while lot of Holocaust survivors and their children and grandchildren as well. So most of us got first-hand accounts of what actually happened. Powerful testimony.)

  • Pseudonym

    I’d assume he was killed as an organizer, otherwise the song makes no sense.

    • The song is the song but there’s many ways of imagining his future. Not that many organizers were killed out there, so I’ll let Casy be the one in this scenario.

  • keta

    I read this novel for the first time mere years ago while on holiday in Indian Wells, CA. Poolside, sipping a cocktail and bantering bullshit with seemingly very nice people my spine-splayed reading was regarded, weighed, and always decisive in guests’ hasty departure.

    I’m lucky enough to visit again this April. I’m eager to finally read It Can’t Happen Here.

    Now get out of my sight-line and pick up your nasty broken tee…

    • N__B

      I just finished The Robber Barons as subway reading. It seems to have had a similar effect on tourists, as I got many fewer questions about directions than usual.

      • keta

        And now I wonder if we shouldn’t explore “Best Books to be Holding While…”

        It works all ways, of course. “Engage Me.” “Don’t Fuck With Me.” “Fuck Off.” “Pretend to Know Why I’m Holding this Book.” ‘Help! I’m Lost and Need Some Direction.”

        As a bus commuter of many years and a an inveterate reader my favourite response to the inevitable eager wannabe conversationalist question is, (In Rickman intonation)…”a book.”

        Perhaps even these indignities could be mitigated.

        • N__B

          Read American Psycho while muttering “I never thought of doing it that way…”

          • cpinva


          • keta

            Tony Last, at last…

  • BGinCHI

    On John Ford:

    Although today best known for his often racist westerns,

    I don’t think that should pass without comment. The Searchers, which is the best known and (arguably) greatest of the Westerns Ford made, is not simply a racist film, in which racism (against native Americans) passes unmarked.

    It is much more complicated than that. Casting John Wayne, the perennial American hero, as a racist, obsessed, war-damaged man dares the viewer to reflect on just what kind of human being Ethan Edwards is. The film offers racism, but is, I would argue, a reflection on American racial conquest fantasy, as well as many other modes of colonial violence.

    • John Selmer Dix

      This may be the case for The Searchers, which was relatively late in Ford’s career, but his earlier stuff isn’t nearly as nuanced.

      • BGinCHI

        I would offer this, with which I pretty much agree:


        • keta

          Great piece, and thanks for the link.

          Here’s what stood out for me:

          …but the culture was paternalistic, and holding an artist working in a popular form to the standards of an activist or a statesman and condemning him for failing to escape the boundaries of his own moment is a fool’s game. Maybe it’s time to stop searching for moral perfection in artists.

          This cannot be stressed enough. To hold past art against the mores of today is simply asinine. We are all products of our times, and our art is the expression of this time. Reflecting, projecting, we’re still moored to this and this time only.

          • BGinCHI

            Yep. Agreed.

            Dismissing complex creations because they have flaws is a terrific way not to learn anything.

            • Such as Birth of a Nation?

              I mean, I’m fine with this line of argument as far as it goes. And I’m not dismissing The Searchers at all–it’s a great film. But it’s also tremendously racist, as racist as Birth of a Nation. So if we are willing to apply these standards to D.W. Griffith, OK.

              • keta


                Teach it all. It’s provenance. It’s truth. To not wrestle with it, to not engage with it is to pretend that women don’t fart. And look where that got us.

                I kid, of course, but seriously. WTF? Why wouldn’t plain facts inform? Why is factual information deemed dangerous?

              • LeeEsq

                I’m going to take an in-between position and argue that art works of a particular time should generally be viewed with charity and an eye for the past. Some works are just particularly bad in their message and must be condemned by general standards.

                • keta

                  I love ya’, Lee, but sitting on that fence leaves you with nothing but a wistful look at those that don’t have a stave up their ass.

                  If a work of the past has a bad message, then message that fucker as bad. Pretending it doesn’t exist won’t alleviate your anal pain. And the longer you sit, the more that stick is stuck, and the sicker you get.

              • BGinCHI

                Not following.

                Birth of a Nation is an avowedly more racist film than Searchers, but it’s probably not worthwhile to split that hair.

                But why would we not use BN and Searchers to explore the way in which a popular form of entertainment represented race and racism (as well as masculinity, family roles, war, colonial expansion, etc.)? Don’t we HAVE to do that?

                No one is suggesting the racism in those films should be ignored for some kind of aesthetic pollyanna genuflection. On the contrary. What makes them necessary is that they reflect the racism of their period and reflect on it. Especially The Searchers. Ford was in no way Ethan Edwards and the film does not mindlessly ask us to identify with his POV.

                My students have no trouble with this.

                • Just_Dropping_By

                  Yes, as I’ve pointed out before, there are many “clues” in The Searchers that show Edwards is not the “hero” of the film and that the audience is supposed find his behavior morally questionable if not outright objectionable. Loomis, however, chooses to ignore those points and continues to pretend that the film is an unreserved celebration of genocide.

    • Bootsie

      I wonder if Wayne had any self-awareness about the role of Edwards.

      • BGinCHI

        I’ve always wondered whether Wayne had any self-awareness.

        ETA: But of course there’s this:


      • keta

        Likely as much as Heston’s grasp of Vidal’s Roman pillar.

        But this is all drip and drather. Better the ignorance, and performance given, than some sort of affected shortness in the role.

        • BGinCHI

          Oh my. No words.

          • Aubergine

            With that stance and looking down at his right hand I thought he was checking his phone.

  • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

    “he would have fought in the Marines in World War II. Had he survived, he and his family would be working in the California defense plants like many other Depression era migrant whites, he would have bought a home in Orange County, and probably voted for Goldwater in 1964.”

    Bullseye. My grandparents in Fountain Valley tick off every single one of these boxes: California Okie, Douglas Aircraft, moved to OC in the mid to late 60s from Huntington Beach (my stepfather was aghast, and never really forgave them). My grandma even worked in the studios as Reagan’s secretary for a time. My grandfather subscribed to those newsletters, and when he passed we found (yes) his silver bars stored in the crawl space.

  • Blanche Davidian

    Remember that Tom was coming home from a stint in prison for a homicide at the beginning of the flick. I don’t believe the Marines (or any of the services) were taking convicted felons at the time. In fact, one of my English professors at University was a Marine in WWII and at the end, the Marines were taking their share of draftees. He and the other volunteers always referred to them as “those SS (Selective Service) bastards.” So I think Tom Joad would not have been able to serve during WWII.
    He may well have worked in one of the war industries in California and been a good union man. He probably didn’t vote for Goldwater in ’64, but may well have voted for Wallace in ’68.

  • LeeEsq

    I’ve heard some criticism of the movie version of the Grapes of Wraith for adding a touch of good government liberalism by contrasting the camp run by the Agriculture Department to the private camp. I guess some people want the business people and the government to be depicted as equally bad. Its still a very powerful movie and surprising how much they got past the Hayes Code. I suspect contrasting the Agriculture Department camp with the private camp was done because of the Hayes Code.

    Some studio movies from the time good escape from the limitations imposed by the Hayes Code and achieve some really strong political and cultural commentary. The Grapes of Wraith is one of those movies. The RKO version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame is another. Yes, they gave it a happy ending but they were able to get a lot past the censors to because it was a classic.

  • KadeKo

    Darryl Zanuck was supposedly asked, “Did you buy the rights to that (dangerous) book to keep it from being filmed?”

    The reply?

    “I didn’t spend $75,000 to not make a movie of it!”

    • LeeEsq

      A classic along with Jack Warner’s “No, no Jimmy Stewart for governor and Ronald Reagan for best friend.” Movie studios buy the rights to film books without any actual intention of making a movie all the time.

  • dp

    Coincidentally, I had the movie at home from Netflix (it’s been here for a week), so I re-watched it tonight for its birthday. Fantastic piece of work.

    And as for John Ford, both “Fort Apache” and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (in addition to “The Searchers”) were movies in which the heroes were those who had some respect for Native Americans, while the villains were the pure racists. Ford had plenty of blind spots, for sure, but implying that he was equivalent to D. W. Griffith is unfair.

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