Nobody makes the desolation of empty spaces mean more than John Ford. You might think he proved that in any of his various westerns, but really the film that speaks the most is 1940's The Grapes of Wrath. The Grapes of Wrath is on right now and if you haven't seen it, you'll get another chance on October 1 on Turner Classic Movies. Set your DVR if you have a chance. I have trouble thinking of a more American movie. Ford and Steinbeck are better together than Torvill and Dean. It's a story of the sharecropping Joad family who pick-up stakes from dust-bowl ravaged Oklahoma and try their luck in California during the depths of the Depression. Poverty like this is unfamiliar to most of us but it wasn't to Americans precariously caught between the worst economic times in history and the greatest war the world has ever seen. What this film captures so well is the immense sense of desperation that pervaded those times. When we look at many films of the 30s we don't see much of what life was really like for an enormous number of Americans because the films were made to be escapist fantasy. We think of Astair and Rogers or screwball comedies about the upper classes or roaring musicals. The Grapes of Wrath was one of the first films to address the most recent and most obvious history that Americans were living once they left the movie theater. The hardship the Joad family endures on their way west is plainly shocking. They're stopped at every state border, pressed to make sure they don't plan to settle, and urged onward. They meet theives, corrupt police, slave driving farm managers, and all the while are guided by a hope that increasingly fades into the reality of desperation. There are good people too, but not so many as we'd like to hope. The Joads aren't welfare seekers, determined to pay their way, determined to stand on their own honestly and its that honesty who so many seek to take advantage of. It's an America that still existis, hidden behind the statistics of J. Press suited economists and plastic-faced news reporters, spoken of with glorious admiration by politicians. Life for people like these is not any better as many of them are black or hispanic, living behind a veil that many Americans cannot see through. The Joads can't afford doctors, live hand-to-mouth, and make do with what, as Grandpa Joad says, "the good Lord sees fit to provide." John Ford brings us a cast of exceptional quality including Henry Fonda, John Carradine, Charley Grapewin, and a surprisingly moving performance from Jane Darwell who deservedly won the 1940 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. You can read her thoughts in one of the most famous scenes from the film as she goes through her hope chest burning what she won't need for the trip out west. Ford distills Steinbeck's book to the essence of the human need to survive and the desire to do better while enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The film is in black & white and that's as it should be. Color would have ruined it as much as color would have ruined the Kansas scenes in The Wizard of Oz a year earlier. And like The Wizard of Oz it seems the Joads run into hucksters and more wicked than good witches. Everybody should see The Grapes of Wrath once. It couldn't be made now or even a few years after it was because the time to do so had passed. Nor can it be remade with any sense of the stark reality in which the Joads and people like them had lived. Nobody would consider it believable. We lose our history at our own peril.