Having finished the book, I decided to watch the old movie The Grapes of Wrath. According to Wiki, it has been called one of the 25 greatest films of all time. I agree. Yet though it was remarkably faithful to the book in both plot and actual lines, it had to leave out so much. I definitely would not recommend foregoing the book and just being content with the film.
Released in 1940, it gives a courageously true view of what happened between labor and bosses in the Dust Bowl years, though you could feel it pulling away from accenting too much of capitalism’s worst features and trying to accent instead the durability and survival of the family against all odds. Of course, the human struggle and triumph is always a worthy theme, but great art and literature can also provoke deeper thinking, reveal what is purposefully hidden and not discussed, give insight into the forces at work that create suffering that are preventable.
And so this made me think about all the films in the 30’s through 50’s that made some kind of first attempt to shed light on issues long shoved to the back of the closet. In the midst of movies as entertainment and distraction, as furthering propaganda and hurtful stereotypes, there has always been a strand attempting to dig deeper. Without looking anything up, I came up with a list of classics for the Film and American Politics: Part I class that I probably will never teach (Part II would be from 1960 to the present). In the way we do these days, we could dismiss them all as hopelessly naïve and caught in the assumptions of the time. But we need to remember that we wouldn’t know what we now know or be where we are without these beginning attempts to deal with the undealt-with issues. Amongst them:
• Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) A Frank Capra film about a simple and honest tuba-playing fellow who inherits 20 million dollars and by the end, uses it to provide fully equipped 10 acre farms free to thousands of homeless families if they will work the land for three years. (The next three films are all directed by Frank Capra).
• Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939): Honesty amidst political corruption.
• You Can’t Take It With You (1938): An eccentric family in which everyone just does what’s fun for them instead of trying to be successful and rich is offered big money to sell their house to make way for a factory. They’re doing experiments in the basement, dancing around in tutus, playing the harmonica while the son of the corporate bad guy dates their daughter. They refuse to sell their house. The most radical tenet of all! With the title as reminder to all those who have bought the American dream.
• It’s a Wonderful Life (1946): The Capra film that we associate with feel-good Christmas, but Potter is a cold-hearted cheating capitalist who values profit over people and George Bailey is the dreamer who also cares about community. Guess who wins in the end.
• Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947): A film about anti-Semitism, released the same year as Crossfire, another film on the same subject that originally as about anti-homosexuality. But it was too early for Hollywood to handle that hot topic, so they changed to anti-Semitism.
• The Defiant Ones (1958): One of the early attempts to look at racism and reconciliation.
• To Kill a Mockingbird (1962): Though now it would be criticized for its “white savior” theme, it was daring in its time to reveal systemic injustice against blacks in the South.
• Adam’s Rib (1949):Along with Woman of the Year, a lighthearted look at the shifting roles between men and women with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as two married lawyers finding themselves on opposite sides of a case. Early feminism.
• Inherit the Wind (1960): The topic of free speech and separation of church and state is treated in this court case of the right to teach Darwinism.
• The Grapes of Wrath (1940): See above.
Well, there’s a start. And leaning on Google, I found some other classic films that I hadn’t heard of before (A Face in the Crowd, Born Yesterday, Imitation of Life, Intruder in the Dust, The Jackie Robinson Story) and those I had seen, but hadn’t necessarily thought about related to the theme of social justice (All the King’s Men, High Noon, Citizen Kane, All About Eve). So now I have given myself some delightful homework and I’ll report back in a month or so.
Feel free to share any films I’ve missed! (For now, up to around 1960).