John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940): Movie Trivia & Fun Facts
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John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940): Movie Trivia & Fun Facts

John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath premiered on January 24, 1940. Amazing The Grapes of Wrath movie trivia encompass John Steinbeck, Henry Fonda, John Carradine, Jane Darwell, Darryl F. Zanuck, Red River Valley, the Great Depression, Tom Joad and Eddie Quillan.

John Steinbeck's searing The Grapes of Wrath came to movie theaters in 1940. Henry Fonda stars as Tom Joad, an ex-con who leads his fellow Okies west to California during the depths of the Great Depression. Here are 21 Grapes of Wrath movie trivia items and fun facts...

1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1902-1968) was first published by Viking in 1939. Reported Malcolm Cowley in The New Republic (5/3/39): "I can’t agree with those critics who say that The Grapes of Wrath is the greatest novel of the last ten years; for example, it doesn’t rank with the best of Hemingway or Dos Passos. But it belongs very high in the category of the great angry books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin that have roused a people to fight against intolerable wrongs.”

The Grapes of Wrath six sheet movie poster - Heritage Auctions

2. Louis B. Mayer of MGM turned down the chance to purchase the movie rights to The Grapes of Wrath, calling the novel "Red propaganda." Darryl F. Zanuck of Twentieth Century-Fox had no such qualms, snapping up the screen rights for $100,000 in the spring of 1939. As part of the deal, Zanuck inserted a clause into the contract, promising the author that the film would "fairly and reasonably retain the main action and social intent of said literary property.”

3. Darryl F. Zanuck wanted John Ford (1894-1973) to direct the picture, stating that Ford was the only man for the job, given his feel for America and his emotional connection to common people. Ford, however, demanded a month off before starting The Grapes of Wrath. At the time, Ford was "working like hell, averaging eighteen hours a day" on the set of Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), starring Henry Fonda and Claudine Colbert.

4. Henry Fonda had read Nunnally Johnson's script and was itching to play the lead role of Tom Joad, asking Leland Howard to set it up. Howard informed Fonda that the actor would have to meet with Darryl F. Zanuck personally. That prospect didn't please Fonda, who viewed Zanuck as "a narrow bastard with only two interests in life, making movies and satisfying" his sex life.

5. Henry Fonda and Darryl F. Zanuck eventually met. Zanuck wanted Fonda to sign a seven-year contract with Fox, hinting that he was also considering either Tyrone Power or Don Ameche for the role of Tom Joad. When Fonda pointedly replied that he wanted to remain a free-lance actor, Zanuck said with a smile, “Well,” I’m not going to give you Tom Joad and then let you go off and do some picture with MGM and Joan Crawford.” Reluctantly, Fonda acquiesced and signed the contract, an act which would cause him immeasurable grief in the years to come.

6. Darryl F. Zanuck borrowed cinematographer Gregg Toland from MGM for $50,000.

7. The Grapes of Wrath was budgeted at $750,000. A second unit performed some background filming in Oklahoma's Dust Bowl, while John "Pappy" Ford filmed at various locations in Arizona, New Mexico and in California's lush San Fernando Valley.

8. The Grapes of Wrath was completed in only 43 days, with production starting on September 15, 1939, and ending on November 8, 1939. John Ford shot an economical 40,000 feet of film – 100,000 feet might have been the norm with another director.

9. The emotional farewell scene between Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) and Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) was accomplished in one take. “We rehearsed it and rehearsed it so that the camera crew could get the moves down,” Fonda is quoted by Dan Ford (grandson of John) in Pappy: The Life of John Ford (Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1979). “Every time we got to the bench and were about to go into our lines, Pappy would say ‘cut’…Well, as actors we were very much aware of the emotion in this scene, and we really wanted to run it. We were like race horses chomping at the bit, but he wouldn’t let us go until the camera was ready. When we finally did run the scene we were ready! I mean the emotion was built up inside of us, and it was working for us. It was there in the face and in the eyes, and we had to fight to hold it back. It was a great, great scene and we knew it right then. After it was over, Pappy just got up and walked away from it…Everybody knew we could print that take.”

10. Darryl F. Zanuck, head of production at 20th Century-Fox, had a big hand in the final product. It was Zanuck who edited Nunnally Johnson's screenplay, selected the accordion as the main instrument in Alfred Newman's music score, added the cricket sounds to the swampy camp meeting attended by Preacher Casy (John Carradine) and tacked on Ma Joad's "we're the people" speech at the end of the movie.

11. The Grapes of Wrath opens on a dusty road near Oklahoma City where Tom Joad, recently released from prison, enters the Cross Roads diner. Tom Joad had spent the last four years in the state penitentiary, having killed another man at a dance hall after the man had stabbed him with a knife. Both men had been drunk at the time, with Tom retaliating with a shovel and striking his attacker dead. Tom had been given a seven-year sentence, but had gotten out in four.

12. In flashbacks, it's the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company who move the tenant farmers a.k.a. "dusters" off the land. "The cats" – caterpillar tractors – move in, bulldozing fences and houses, with their operators earning $3 a day for their work. Muley Graves (John Qualen) threatens to shoot one of the cat operators, only to discover that he's the son of a neighbor.

13. Uncle John (Frank Darien) produces a handbill advertising for 800 migrant pickers in California. With only a day left to vacate their Oklahoma farm, the Joads load up their old truck before dawn and begin the long trek to California. Grampa Joad (Charley Grapewin), however, stubbornly refuses to leave, so the family spike his coffee with Soothin' Syrup. The sleepy drunk old man is then placed in the truck and hauled away.

14. Grampa Joad becomes ill and dies along the way. Too poor to afford an undertaker, the Joads bury William James Joad right there, leaving a note at the makeshift grave. This practice was not uncommon among displaced Okies during the Great Depression.

15. The Joads follow U.S. 66 to California. Across the Pecos River in New Mexico, their truck overheats. Pa Joad is then "allowed" to buy a loaf of day-old bread for ten cents from a surly employee at a truck stop.

16. The Joads glimpse their first sight of California from the Arizona side, scanning a series of desolate mountains. “Well, there she is, folks,” Pa Joad remarks contemptuously. “The land of milk and honey – California.”

17. The Joads are assigned house #63 at the Keene Ranch near Pixley, California, where they pick peaches for five cents a box – no bruised fruit allowed in the final count.

18. Tom Joad enjoys a dance with his ma at the Farmworkers' Wheat Patch Camp where they glide across the floor to the strains of "Red River Valley," performed by accordionist Danny Borzage.

19. The Grapes of Wrath debuted at New York City's Rivoli Theater on January 24, 1940. The first day's attendance was 12,917. The film proved to be an overnight sensation, as long lines of eager moviegoers snaked around the theater for weeks, resulting in traffic problems for the NYPD.

20. Author John Steinbeck loved the movie version of his famous novel. The Grapes of Wrath earned seven Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Henry Fonda), Best Supporting Actress (Jane Darwell, won), Best Director (John Ford, won), Best Screenplay (Nunnally Johnson), Best Sound Recording (E.H. Hansen), and Best Film Editing (Robert Simpson). Jane Darwell had almost missed being cast in Grapes, as Beulah Bondi had also been considered for the pivotal role of Ma Joad.

21. Deceased cast members from the Grapes of Wrath include Henry Fonda (1905-1982), Jane Darwell (1879-1967), John Carradine (1906-1988), Charley Grapewin (1869-1956), Dorris Bowdon (1914-2005), Russell Simpson (1880-1959), O.Z. Whitehead (1911-1998), John Qualen (1899-1987), Eddie Quillan (1907-1990) and Zeffie Tilbury (1863-1950).

“I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere, wherever you can look. Wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there…” - Henry Fonda as Tom Joad

Top Image

  • The Grapes of Wrath cast, l-r: Eddie Quillan, Dorris Bowdon, John Carradine, Henry Fonda - Heritage Auctions

Copyright © 2011 William J. Felchner

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Comments (3)

Super info and fun to learn from your well composed contents.

As a teenager, Steinbeck was my favorite writer.

Steinbeck has always been one of my favorite authors and The Grapes Of Wrath one of my favorite books and movies. Great Trivia.