Economics in Film
Fall Semester 2000
The Grapes of Wrath
The movie The Grapes of Wrath truthfully and realistically recreates the economic impact of the Great Depression upon one family in Oklahoma. The Joad family represents the thousands of migrant families that suffered from oppression from the banks and big farm interest during the 1930's. The family's slow decline gives us an insight into the thousands of Oklahoman families who were evicted and uprooted from the land they have owned for many generations. They were forced to leave their homes and go west in search of jobs and survival along with thousands of other migrant workers.
The movie deals with feudal sharecroppers. The farmers have lived on "their" land all their life, and their parents probably did as well, but it does not belong to them. The crops they produce belong to the owner and he gives them a certain share of the crop. The owner has the ability to evict the tenant farmers at anytime. The overuse of the farmland which was forced by the feudal landowners, combined with a drought helped to create the great dust bowl of the twenties and thirties. In addition, mechanized farming was becoming more widely used. The combination of these events made the decision to evict their tenants fairly easy for the landlords.
Muley, a man who has recently been evicted from his land, recalls the day the agent came to force him and his family off their land. The agent told Muley, "The fact of the matter Muley, after what them dusters done to the land, the tenant system don't work no more. You don't even break even, or much less show a profit. Why, one man and a tractor can handle twelve or fourteen of these places. You just pay him a wage and take the entire crop". He is basically saying that they are going from a feudalistic system, share cropping, to a capitalistic system, paying a wage. Muely challenges the agent and asks him who is to blame, but the fact of the matter is that there really wasn't anyone to place the blame on and the result was the same, thousands of families in Oklahoma where forced to leave their homes in such a manner. One man with a caterpillar tractor would push ten to fifteen families off their land and out of their homes in one day. Times where so desperate that the tenant farmers would help the very men who were kicking them off of their land in order to make a little money before they had to leave. Some men actually drove the tractors into their old neighbors homes and forced them off their land for three dollars an hour. Others, like Pa Joad, would pick the cotton to clear the land that was being taken from them. When Tom Joad, who has recently been let out of prison only to come home to a deserted house, reunites with his family they are about to leave for California. Like so many other displaced families the Joad's, lured by flyers promising work, decided to go west in search of the great opportunities that await them in California. And so their journey began.
On their journey there are many advertising signs for small businesses. During this time of depression people along route 66, the road to California, took advantage of the migration of the Okies and prospered. All along the road there are signs advertising goods and service for sale, like water for $.15 or camp $.50. Another group of people that did well during this time were the truck drivers. The Joads arrive at a truck stop along the way trying to buy a loaf of bread. They only have a certain amount of money to spend because they have a strict budget for the trip. When the waitress realizes the severity of their situation she sells them the bread and two candy canes for a lot less than what the price was. After they leave the two truck drivers that were eating there pay and leave without collecting the hefty half dollar change they have coming. The waitress stares at them reverently as they leave and says, "Bert look! Truck drivers."
As the Joads continue on their journey they get into a short conversation with the attendants at the last gas station there is before a wide stretch of desert in California. The attendant tells them that it takes a lot more nerve than he has to cross the desert in a truck like theirs. Tom astutely responds, "It take no nerve to do somethin' ain't nothin' else you can do." Without knowing it Tom is making a remark about the feudal relationship they were involved in, in Oklahoma. When the relationship was terminated they were not only forced to leave in order to find new work, but to put their lives in danger. This statement of fact leaves no doubt that the relationship was a feudal one. In order for it to have been anything else they would have had another option, one which would have allowed them to continue with their lifestyle as before. The Joads make it across the desert and they are finally in California "the land of Milk and honey".
While in California the Joads live in three very different camps. The first camp was like a mere rest stop. It was filled with hundreds of people just like the Joads who had come to California in search of work. A man in a nice car and suit pulls up into the camp with a police officer and asks the men if they need work and offers them employment picking fruit. One of the men who has already been through the system takes him on, saying, "Then you make out an order, where and when and how much you're gonna pay, and you sign it and we'll go. Twice now I fell for that line. Maybe he needs a thousand men. So he gets five thousand there and he'll pay fifteen cents an hour. Then you guys will have to take it, cause you'll be hungry. If he wants to hire men, let him ride it out and say what he's gonna pay. Ask to see his license. He ain't allowed by law to contract men without a license." To this the contractor has the policemen he has brought with him go after the man under false charges. This scene helps to prove that the camps in California were feudalistic systems as well; they were feudalism at its worst. The camps don't pay what they say they are going to pay and the use political means to get away with what they are doing. The law is on their side. Once in the camp we see more of the awful truth about this. When the Joads arrive they are given a house that is owned by the company and they are told that they will be paid $.05 per box. In feudalistic relationships everything is owned by the company and the workers are paid for what they produce not how long they work. They are also told that they must buy from the company store, which has outrageous prices, another characteristic of feudalism. We discover that the former workers are on strike. They were being paid such a meager amount that they couldn't afford to buy food for the company owned store. As soon as the strike is broken, using the Okies, the owner sends send the wages back down to $.025 per box. Thus was the way of the feudal fruit and cotton picking camps of California.
The life of a migrant Okie was very hard during the depression. They went from a feudal relationship that they loved and thrived on to one that was completely different. They were brutally displaced from their homes and forced to put their lives in danger by traveling to a strange and distant land in search of work. When they finally got there the situation they found was more treacherous than the road they had come on. They were forced to live from day to day on what little they could make. The wages they were paid were scarcely enough to keep them alive; obviously saving money to try and climb out of this desperate situation was impossible. The really sad thing is that these were the lucky ones, the ones that were "fortunate" enough to find work. The others were left to die in the non-working camps, struggling to find work or the charity of a kind soul. There was no way out. Even if they could manage to get away from the camp, the people in the city had developed such a strong hatred for the Okies, who were making their cities "dirty" that they were rejected there. The choices they had were bad and worse, and nobody seemed to care. The futility and desperation were so great that even the other migrant workers who were suffering the same injustices did not have enough compassion to care about each other.
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