Friday, October 16, 2020

John Steinbeck at the Movies

 The writer John Steinbeck was a man of many contradictions. He was known as a poet of the Central California coast, but he lived out his later years in New York City. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but academic types tended to look down on his body of work. He was loved by many readers for his tender appreciation of the common man, but he also had a strong  misanthropic streak. That’s why his most recent biographer, my colleague William Souder, calls his deeply-revealing book Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck.

 Despite his celebrity, Steinbeck was not a man who felt comfortable amid the movers and shakers of Hollywood. (This despite the fact that the woman who became his second wife, Gwen Conger, worked on the fringes of showbiz. Their affair began while John was holed up in a place called the Aloha Arms, supposedly learning the movie business.) Steinbeck’s interest in making films was piqued when his rollicking little tale of life among the paisanos of Monterey, Tortilla Flat, sold to Paramount Pictures for $4000. In the 1930s, this was a huge sum, and his initial thought was to bank it for the future and continue to live frugally with his first wife, Carol. But at this point in his career, Steinbeck was starting to become noticed in a big way. His powerful bestselling novella, 1937’s Of Mice and Men, made a big splash on Broadway, and became the source of his first actual screen credit. The 1939 film version, directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Burgess Meredith, Betty Field, and Lon Chaney Jr., was nominated for four Oscars including best picture. Happily, the adapters remained faithful to the book, though an earlier director-producer, Mervyn LeRoy, had tried to persuade Steinbeck that the film would be stronger if Lennie did not in fact kill Curley’s wife, but only got blamed for it. (There’ve been several additional film versions since, including one from 1992, starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, who also directed.)

 Once Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, was published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Hollywood fame was assured. The 1940 film, directed by the great John Ford, starred Henry Fonda as a memorable Tom Joad. Jane Darwell won an Oscar for her heartfelt turn as Ma Joad, and Ford was honored for his direction.  Fans of the novel lamented the loss of Steinbeck’s lyrical interstitial chapters but Steinbeck himself was pleased by Ford’s gritty focus on his characters. When viewed today, the film remains moving, but Gregg Toland’s black & white cinematography, effective though it is, can’t truly convey the rural landscape on which Steinbeck’s characters live and work.

When Steinbeck’s final great novel, East of Eden, appeared in 1952, Hollywood was waiting. Elia Kazan was tapped to direct the 1955 version of Steinbeck’s epic family tale. It is best known for launching the career of James Dean, who crackles with on-screen electricity in his rows with his stern father (Raymond Massey) and his passion for his brother’s eager young fiancée (Julie Harris). The film’s widescreen color cinematography gives a glimpse of the land that Steinbeck held so dear, but lacks the power of his rich opening description of his birthplace, which begins as follows: “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.”  


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