October 22, 2007

Smackdown 1940: Jane Darwell, The Grapes of Wrath

At its best, The Grapes of Wrath is almost unbearably bleak and poignant; at its worst, it's filled with sentimental Steinbeck speeches that are entirely unbelievable coming from the movie's unsophisticated characters. What holds the movie together as it whips from one extreme to the other is the presence of Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, a performance of quiet strength, dignity, and optimism.

Her eyes are what stay with me -- deep set, heavy lidded, and intensely mournful. But there are glimmers of happiness, moments when memories shine through of a life that was not always quite as difficult as it has now become. There's a lovely scene early on, as the Joad family prepares to leave their farm, and Darwell sits alone in the house with a small box of souvenirs -- a postcard from New York, a pair of earrings, a ceramic animal from the St. Louis World's Fair. As she looks at each of these mementos, we see an entire story flash across her face.

It's not easy to play a saint, and that's pretty much what Ma Joad is. Darwell gives us just enough of the imp within to humanize her (you can imagine that as a young woman, she was quite the hellraiser). She's willing to lie if necessary to save her family, and every now and then, she even cuts loose with a joke; her deadpan "On a gallon of gas?" is one of the few funny moments in the movie.

There are some problems in the performance, many of them due to the writing -- I don't think any actress could survive the overwrought goo of her final "we are the people" speech -- but unlike some of her castmates (Charley Grapewin as Grandpa Joad, for instance), Darwell almost never resorts to hamminess or overly broad theatrics. It is acting of the utmost simplicity and sincerity, and it is a joy to watch.

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