Plot: The classic John Steinbeck novel about dust-bowl farmers emigrating from Oklahoma to California became a classic film with Henry Fonda as Tom Joad and Jane Darwell (in an Oscar-winning performance) as his mother. Tom returns home after serving time in prison for manslaughter to find that his share-cropper family is preparing to leave. They have lost the right to farm the land, so they are setting off to find jobs in California. Ma takes one last moment in their shack of a home, holding her earrings up to her ears, and then all twelve of them pile into the truck, including Casey, a former minister. On the way, their grandfather dies, and they bury him themselves. The grandmother dies, too, but Ma holds on to her and does not tell anyone until they get to California. Thousands of migrants have arrived for the 800 available jobs. Exploited and even robbed by the bosses, the workers are so desperate that they will do anything for any wage. They are too frightened to organize and insist on better treatment.
The bosses have hired thugs who prevent anyone from objecting to their treatment. Tom kills one to protect the people he is shooting at and Casey takes the blame. Casey is killed, and Tom kills the assailant. Wanted by the authorities, Tom cannot stay with his family, which has now found a government-sponsored work camp with better conditions. He tells his mother farewell: “Well, maybe it’s like Casey says. Fella ain’t got a soul of his own. Just a little piece of a big soul. One big soul that belongs to everybody… I’ll be 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. Wherever there’s a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be there in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be there in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry, and they know supper’s ready, and when people are eatin’ the stuff they raised, and livin’ in the houses they built, I’ll be there, too.” After he leaves, Ma says, “Rich fellers come up. They die. Their kids ain’t no good and they die out. But we keep a-comin’. We’re the people that live. Can’t wipe us out. Can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, ’cause we’re the people!”
Discussion: This brilliant film shows us a family of enormous dignity and commitment. Though Ma says that they are not “the kissin’ kind,” and they show little emotion (except for Ma’s delight in Tom’s return from prison) there is clearly a great deal of love in the family.
Questions for Kids:
· Director John Ford was famous for using the landscapes in his movies to help create the mood and tell the story. How did he do that here?
· Casey is often considered to be a Christ-like figure. What causes people to make that comparison?
· What do you think about Tom’s comment that we all have “a piece of a big soul”? About Ma’s comment that “the people will go on”?
· What is the life of migrant workers like today? To the extent that it has improved, what and who made it better?
Connections: John Ford won an Oscar as Best Director. Darwell can be glimpsed as “the bird lady” in “Mary Poppins.” Carradine is the father of actors Keith and Robert Carradine.
Activities: Teens should read the book by John Steinbeck. They may also appreciate his books Of Mice and Men and East of Eden, and the films based on them.