Hollywood producer Daryl F. Zanuck purchased the film rights to John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath within a month of its publication in March 1939, paying Steinbeck $75000. The film was released less than one year later - an extremely short time for such a major film, even by Hollywood assembly-line standards. Because Steinbeck was concerned that his novel be left undiluted, he suggested that 20th Century Fox should contact Tom Collins, the administrator of the Weedpatch Camp, and make him act as an advisor.
Nunnally Johnson, who had been hired to do the screenplay for The Grapes of Wrath, swore to do it 'straight' and not to water-down the story. He also told Steinbeck that there were many people working on the picture who cared about the message of the novel. There were rumors that Zanuck would either not complete the movie or, if he did, would avoid the truth. Steinbeck told Zanuck that he would use the $ 75000 he received for the film rights to sue Zanuck if the movie was watered down or its perspective changed. Zanuck told Steinbeck that he believed in the story and that he had ordered a detective agency to check out the accuracy of the script in the fields: they found out that conditions were much worse than Steinbeck reported.
As it turned out, Collins became Technical Director of the movie version, and Steinbeck was both pleased with the script, written by Nunnally Johnson, and with the film. That Steinbeck was after all pleased with the final film version becomes obvious in a letter he wrote to his literary agent and friend Elizabeth Otis. ' Zanuck has more than kept his word. He has a hard, straight picture in which the actors are submerged so completely that it looks and feels like a documentary film and certainly it has a hard, truthful ring. No punches were pulled - in fact, with descriptive matter removed, it is a harsher thing than the book, by far.'
The film was produced by Daryl F. Zanuck and directed by John Ford. John Ford was attracted to the story's dualistic themes of dispossession and quest for survival. ' The whole thing appealed to me - being about simple people - and the story was similar to the famine in Ireland, when they threw the people off the land and left them wandering on the roads to starve - part of my Irish tradition - but I like this idea of one family going out and trying to find their way in the world. It was a timely story.'
The film-makers must have known that the film was political dynamite. Even as the film was being shot, producer Daryl Zanuck reportedly received 15000 letters, 99 per cent of which accused him of cowardice, saying he would never make the film because the industry was too closely associated with big business. Since the studio was afraid that the Texas and Oklahoma Chambers of commerce would object to the filming it announced that it was really filming another story, entitled Highway 66.
In a letter Steinbeck wrote on the 15th of December 1939 to Elizabeth Otis he pointed out that the film was political dynamite. ' As for Grapes, it opens sometime in January. There is so much hell being raised in this state that Zanuck will not release simultaneously. He'll open in N.Y. and move gradually west, letting the publicity precede it. He even, to find out, issued a statement that it would never be shown in California and got a ton of mail, literally, in protest the next day. He has hired attorneys to fight any local censorship and is trying to get Thomas Benton for the posters. All this is beyond our hopes.'
A significant amount of shooting was done around Weedpatch Camp which Tom Collins ran, and he advised the director on the dress, manner, habits, speech and culture of the migrants. He also served as a guide to locations of note in the Central Valley. This cooperation between Collins and the movie company contributed to the realistic, almost documentary, feel of the film.
|Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is a camera-conscious novel: the narrative
eye zooms in and pans back from the devastated landscape in the opening lines of the
novel. The fact that Steinbeck was documenting a current phenomenon made the task of
producer Daryl F. Zanuck and director John Ford easier: all they had to do to envision
their characters was to look at the Dust
Bowl and depression photographs by people like Dorothea Lange and Horace Bristol.
According to photographer Horace Bristol it is no coincidence that several of the
principal characters in the film resemble Bristol's photographs, since the 20th
Century Fox directors asked him for a set to help them cast for the movie.
The Grapes of Wrath came as close as any film in Hollywood's prolific turnout to expose the contradictions and inequities at the heart of American life. It was an immense success an the screen, 20th Century Fox's top money-maker of the year, selected as best picture of 1940 by the national Board of Review and the New York Film Critics.
Nominated for 7 Academy Awards (best director, best actor, best supporting actress, best picture, best film editing, best screenplay writing, best sound recording), it won 2 Academy awards: for best director (John Ford) and best supporting actress (Jane Darwell as Ma Joad).