13th Oct, 2007

Ma Joad’s Speech at the End of John Ford’s “Grapes of Wrath”: Saturday Night at the Movies

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John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath is one of the treasures of American film. Take Steinbeck’s novel as its basis, add the veteran Nunnally Johnson to write the screenplay and the incomparable Gregg Toland (who deserves more credit than he has received for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane) contributing some virtuoso night photography and then pack the cast with some of Hollywood’s top actors including Henry Fonda, John Carradine, and Jane Darwell along with some of Ford’s famous stock company such as John Qualen and Ward Bond and you have the ingredients for a great film.

Grapes would win Oscars for Ford as best director and Jane Darwell as best actress. Physically stereotyped as a character actress, Darwell gives one of the great performances in movie history as Ma Joad. It is she, not Fonda as Tom Joad who is the center of the picture and she does not disappoint.

One of the big questions those making the film pondered was how to end it. Hollywood (and Ford) wanted an upbeat ending, but if the ending was going to work and not take down the entire film in sentimentality it had to set just the right tone. Ford and Johnson finally settled on having the film end when the family leaves a work camp and once more hit the road again after Tom Joad has to go on the run for killing a vigilante who has beaten his friend Preacher Casey to death.

This sets an ambiguous tone for the ending because we do not know if the family will just end up in another work camp or worse. It is Darwell who gives the film’s final speech as the family rolls down the road in its dilapidated jalopy. She delivers it with just the right tone, leaving no one doubting that only she could have carried off the film’s ending.

The speech itself deserves to be remembered in these days when the Great Depression is but a dim memory and the presidential campaigns have forgotten the Ma Joads of the world.

AL: Whatsa matter, Ma? Gettin’ scared?

MA: No. Ain’t ever gonna be scared no more.

(After a pause)I was, though. For a while I thought we was beat–*good* an’ beat. Looked like we didn’t have nothin’ in the worl’ but enemies–wasn’t nobody frien’ly anymore. It made me feel bad an’ scared too–like we was lost… an’ nobody cared.

AL: Watch me pass that Chevvy.

PA: You the one that keeps us goin’, Ma. I ain’t no good any more, an’ I know it. Seems like I spen’ all my time these days a-thinkin’ how it use’ta be–thinkin’ of home–an’ I ain’t never gonna see it no more.

MA: Woman can change better’n a man. Man lives in jerks–baby born, or somebody dies, that’s a jerk–gets a farm, or loses one, an’ that’s a jerk. With a woman it’s all one flow, like a
stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that.

AL: Look at that ol’ coffeepot steam!

PA: Maybe, but we shore takin’ a beatin’.

MA:(chuckling): I know. Maybe that makes us tough. Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good, an’ they die out. But we keep a-comin’. We’re the people that live. Can’t nobody wipe us out. Can’t nobody lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa.

We’re the people.

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