The Great Depression and the Arts
Few literary works of the 1930s received the acclaim earned by John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Published in March 1939, the novel about Oklahoma migrants became a sensation, topping the best seller list by early May. Essentially a fictional account of current events, the work expressed outrage, sympathy, and optimism without being consciously polemical. Twentieth Century Fox bought the film rights in late April, gambling on the hope that this socially conscious work would translate well on to the screen. The renowned John Ford directed the film version which was released early in 1940. That same year the novel, still on the top ten best sellers' list, won the Pulitzer Prize. The film took Oscars for Best Director and Best Supporting Actress (Jane Darwell as Ma Joad).
Both Steinbeck and Ford denied trying to make a political statement with their art. However, historian Alan Brinkley notes, "To modern readers and viewers... The Grapes of Wrath, in all its versions, had become an unusually vivid historical document: a portrait of a portion of American society in the Great Depression and of a political sensibility that continues to resonate...." In the context of teaching the 1930s, the novel and the film can illustrate the social themes of the Great Depression (migration, despair, poverty, individualism, conflict, community, solidarity, etc.).
Ideally, the film should be shown in class in order for students to discuss central themes, film techniques, character development, etc. If time does not permit the showing of the complete film, use the segments listed to modify the lesson.
The lesson is further enhanced if students have read the novel and can discuss the discrepancies between the text and the movie. Some critics charge that the film softened some of the novel's hard edge and political radicalism. Indeed, the ending is hopeful. Students should consider how changes in the nation's economy by 1939 may have influenced changes in the film script.
What makes this film valuable for teaching the thirties is not limited to its historical content or point of view. The film is a primary source, revealing a great deal about the times that inspired the story. But it also illustrates the technical art behind the visual image. For example, a tight camera frame suggests confinement; silhouettes and chiaroscuro lighting cast a darkness to convey bleakness and intensity. Even the director's use of silence and sounds or the maneuvering of the camera's eye can help students analyze the film much in the same way that they analyze text and photography of the Great Depression. Although there is debate over the merits of its documentary realism, the film can serve as a "cultural artifact" of its times.
The lesson includes a synopsis of the film and a time line, as well as timed segments with questions for adaptation. In preparation for viewing "The Grapes of Wrath" distribute copies of the film synopsis and timeline to students. Because of their length, assign these for homework. Plan to devote class time going over the film synopsis. Use the timeline to clarify the drought and conditions in affected areas in particular the Dust Bowl and the "Black Blizzards."
If this lesson is conducted over several days, you might stop the film before the end of the class period and have students discuss their written observations. If students are too distracted to write while they are viewing, give them some quiet "power writing" time in the last minutes of the period to summarize what they have watched and/or discussed by using the film sheet as their guide. You might wish to provide the cast of characters on an overhead before the students actually begin viewing.
Before beginning the film, provide students with a list of questions as a viewing guide (See Questions).
If you do not have the time to show the entire film in class, use the film segments listed in the Questions.
Use songs to enhance student understanding of the film and the larger issues of the Great Depression. Provide copies for students or use overheads of songs such as E. Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney's "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?", Alfred Hayes' "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night" or Woody Guthrie's "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Yuh" and "Ain't Gonna Be Treated This Way."
Students can create movie posters to advertise "The Grapes of Wrath." Display these in the classroom.
The film "Grapes of Wrath" presents one of the New Deal's programs to help migrants through the Resettlement Administration (RA). Wheatpatch is representative of a series of camps established by the RA. Students can investigate this program as an optional activity. Compare and contrast the RA program with non-governmental efforts to establish migrant camps.
Research contemporary accounts of the Dust Bowl as recorded in contemporary periodicals such as Life, Time, Business Week, and Fortune. Compare these contemporary reports on the Dust Bowl and migrants to historical accounts.
Read John Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle about the migrant farmers' strike in California's Salinas Valley. How does the tone of this novel differ from that of The Grapes of Wrath?
The following resources will assist in the development of this lesson:
Carnes, Mark C. (ed). Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies. New York: Henry Holt, 1996, 224-227.
French, Warren. Filmguide to The Grapes of Wrath. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973.
Resch, Kenneth E., and Vicki D. Schicker. Using Film in the High School Curriculum: A Practical Guide for Teachers and Librarians. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1992.
Rollins, Peter C. (ed.). Hollywood as Historian. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985, 68-87.