What the First Lady Thought About Grapes of Wrath

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The Grapes of Wrath is one of cinema's masterpieces. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, the movie earned wins for Best Director for John Ford and Best Supporting Actress for Jane Darwell. Today, the film still captures the hard reality of families displaced and struggling to survive in one of America’s hardest times.


1. Steinbeck approved.

In 1938, John Steinbeck was angry. After seeing firsthand the state of worker camps in California in order to write a story for Life magazine, he was appalled at the condition his fellow Americans were living in. That outrage fueled writing of what would become the masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck purchased the rights and had Nunnally Johnson write the script. The screenwriter was worried about adapting it as he felt it had a “Biblical” character to it. Once completed, he sent the script to Steinbeck who not only voiced his approval but asked Nunnally to adapt his other novel, The Moon is Down. They remained friends the rest of their lives.

2. The cast could have been very different.

Spencer Tracy, Don Ameche, and Tyrone Power were considered for Henry Fonda’s part. James Stewart was considered for Al. Steinbeck suggested casting Beulah Bondi for the part of Ma, and Walter Brennan and James Barton were considered for Pa.

3. Carradine was a character.

Ford is known for his temper, especially how he took it out on John Wayne in other films’ productions. During Grapes, the director found himself at odds with John Carradine, but the actor was skilled at letting it roll off his back. Dorris Bowdon recalled, “John was one person that was totally oblivious to Ford’s needling. [He] had such an ego, he was a marvel. He thought of himself as Barrymore, and he was impervious to anything Ford did to him.” If he didn’t like the director’s suggestion, Carradine would overplay them in rehearsal or simply do what he wanted. Explaining his need for rebellion, Carradine said, “No matter what part Ford hired me for, he’d always want me to slobber, drool, or squint.”

4. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote about it.

The First Lady jotted down her thoughts about The Grapes of Wrath in her nationally syndicated column, My Day, on February 23, 1940. She wrote, “I think it is well done, but I wonder if it will convey to many people the reality of what they are seeing. People laughed near us at some of the broad remarks in the dialogue. I did not feel the tragedy gripped the audience. They did not seem really to know what this story actually meant.” Even before the story hit cinemas, it had an effect on Eleanor. After reading the novel, she called for congressional hearings that eventually lead to changes in the worker camps.