In 1995, when Bruce Springsteen recorded the title song for his moody, introspective album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, he was not only thinking about the leading character of a famous John Steinbeck novel concerning the Depression plight of displaced Okies, but also of Henry Fonda’s unforgettable portrayal of this role in the celebrated 1940 John Ford film version of THE GRAPES OF WRATH (available on DVD). Bruce was wondering what exactly had become of Tom Joad’s ghost, the spirit of that archetypal American idealist who told his mother just before he left the family for good: “…Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there… Wherever there’s a fight so that hungry people can eat, I’ll be there…” Springsteen was lamenting the apparent loss of that special nature which galvanized us, took us to victory in the Second World War–that crusading indignation and anger at injustice. Indeed, it’s difficult to watch The Grapes of Wrath today without a heartsick feeling of nostalgia for the Roosevelt years that seemed to inspire such sentiments.
For this final key scene with Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, Fonda would tell me, Ford would not allow the two actors to rehearse it for him, but only allowed them to play it in front of the camera, and the very first take is the one in the picture. “Of course, by the time we got to it,” Fonda said, “we were just chomping at the bit to do the scene.” It was Ford’s way, Fonda explained, of insuring the absolute freshness he strove to get in all his work. When Fonda’s Tom returns at the start of the film from several years in prison and sees his mother again, the actor said he wanted to kiss her cheek, but Ford stopped him, had them shake hands instead, saying: “Country people don’t kiss.”
Ford’s movie, for which he received his second of four Academy Awards as best director (plus two Oscars for war documentaries), is certainly among the darkest, most anti-establishment ever produced by a major Hollywood studio (20th Century-Fox), shot on actual locations in sharp ultra-contrasted black-and-white by the legendary Gregg Toland (of Citizen Kane fame). Since during his lifetime Ford was America’s most honored director—-four New York Film Critics Awards to go with the still record number of Oscars, plus being the first filmmaker ever to receive our country’s highest civilian recognition, the Medal of Freedom-—and since he was, as well, the most highly respected among his peers, one could as easily lament the contemporary loss of the kind of economically minded, visually eloquent directorial professionalism for which he stood. He would invariably describe himself as “a hard-nosed director” just doing “a job of work.”
That he was also one of the few poets of the screen was a bonus. Orson Welles famously called him “a poet and a comedian;” he continued: “With Ford at his best, you get a sense of what the earth is made of.” Recently, it was announced that Jack Ford will also be the first director to be celebrated with a U.S. postage stamp (a drawing of his face—not a great likeness—side by side with an iconic image from The Searchers) and certainly it is most appropriate to pay him homage yet again for the enduring legacy he left behind. Essentially, he was a moving balladeer of the lost family—-so many of his films, like The Grapes of Wrath, deal with the dissolution of a family—-and by extension, a way of life, a country.