Wednesday, April 1, 2015

What the...?

By Lars Trodson

I didn’t expect to hear a little bit of history while watching a restored version of John Ford's “The Grapes of Wrath” on DVD the other night, but I did. Well, maybe history is too strong a word. But it was certainly different, new and in its own way oddly exciting.

In scene 20 on a DVD issued under "The Ford at Fox" series from 20th Century Fox in 2009, the Joads pull over in their overladen jalopy to fix a flat tire. (The jalopy is featured in the Thomas Hart Benton painting that graces the cover the DVD, titled "The Departure of the Joads," from 1939.) The kids, and ma and pa, and Roseasharn all hop off the truck, half giddy and half weary, and Tom Joad lankily gets out of the driver’s seat to retrieve the tire iron and the jack. Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) sits down on the front bumper of the truck, while Tom (Henry Fonda) throws down the tire iron and, with his back to the camera, climbs under the truck. You then can see him turn his face up to Ma Joad, and he clearly says, “Ma, will you get the hell off the truck? It’s heavy enough as it is.”

Wait. What?

This movie was made and released in 1940. There were no curse words in American movies at that time, except — ! Why, it was just the year before that David O. Selznick practically had to get an act of Congress to admit the word “damn” into “Gone With The Wind.” But after that, the Hays Code kicked back in to its full extent, banning all sorts of things, including cursing.

So, what was this all about? I replayed the scene, and there it was: Henry Fonda using the word “hell” in “The Grapes of Wrath.” I replayed the scene again, and sure enough. I then thought that the audio commentary, by film historian Joseph McBride and Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw must surely address this anomaly. I reran scene 20, this time with the audio commentary on, and when it came to the scene it was clear that the commentators were not using the fully restored version. There was only background noise as Tom Joad crawled under the truck. This is what audiences in 1940 must have heard — nothing. But I thought it odd that the version that played without the commentary was different than the version that played with it.

Even though the line has obviously been restored and wasn't heard by contemporaneous audiences, there was something thrilling, even slightly subsersive, about hearing even the mildest of curse words in an American mainstream film from the 1940s. It just didn't happen. And the "damn" in "Gone With The Wind" is now so famous (and, by contrast, swearing now so common) that we fail to fully appreciate just how culturally significant it was at the time.

I wondered if Ford had tried to pull a fast one, given the legwork that Selznick had made. Maybe Ford felt as though the time was right for another “hell” or “damn” because, surely, that was how people truly spoke. Maybe Ford felt it was time for movies to grow up a little bit more. (But not too much. The ending of the movie version of "The Grapes of Wrath" is a much-sanitized version of what happens in the novel.) But it obviously didn't happen.

But it is in there now, this strange little chestnut, a small moment in movie time. It may not be historic, but I thought it deserved its little moment in the sun.