The Grapes Of Wrath | 1940
John Ford’s moving, though politically softened, filming of John Steinbeck’s story of 1930s sharecroppers forced to leave their Oklahoma farmland to find work in the west, was shot mainly on the 20th Century Fox backlot on Pico Boulevard in Century City, Los Angeles.
Despite the technical limitations of the time, Ford was determined to give the journey of the Joad family a gritty authenticity. A Second Unit was dispatched to travel the old Route 66, filming scenes in long-shot using stand-ins for the actors. Occasionally, real migrants heading west were paid to accompany the Joad wagon.
The story begins with Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) freed from Oklahoma State Penitentiary only to find his family has been forced to leave the land they’Video farmed for decades.
The Oklahoma Penitentiary, built in 1908, is still operational in McAlester, Highway 69, 100 miles south of Tulsa, in Oklahoma. Although there’s a little scene-setting around McAlester, both the Joad farm and the farmhouse belonging to the unfortunate Muley (John Qualen) were filmed at Lasky Mesa, on the west end of Victory Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley west of Woodland Hills, north of LA.
The area of rolling hills and mesas, named after pioneer producer Jesse L Lasky, co-founder with Adolf Zukor of Paramount Pictures, provided an adaptable backdrop for Hollywood’s burgeoning movie industry. Scenes for countless productions including such classics as The Charge Of The Light Brigade, They Died With Their Boots On and Gone With The Wind were filmed here. After much wrangling, the land has been preserved from redevelopment, and forms part of the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve.
The family’s plan is to head for California, where fruit-pickers are supposedly in demand. The Second Unit’s route might well be authentic, but the order of locations is juggled, presumably for dramatic effect. As the journey proper begins, the Joads’ overloaded wagon is seen driving west on Central Avenue at 5th Street NW in downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico (though a superimposed sign reads ‘Oklahoma City’).
Turning left, the truck is immediately on East Main Street in the town of Sayre, Oklahoma, in front of the Beckham County Courthouse on the main square.
The journey is tough and the first casualty is grandfather, who dies and is hurriedly buried beside the road before the family moves on. They’re soon passing a sign for the old Camp Keyton hotel, which stood on 2nd Street in Winslow, Arizona (although they’re supposedly still in New Mexico).
Passing the night in a temporary migrant camp, they get the first hints that perhaps the opportunities in California may not be as plentiful as they’ve been led to believe. With no option but to persevere, they carry on to cross the Pecos River at Santa Rosa, New Mexico, on what is now Hwy 84 running alongside the railroad bridge, which you can still see. They do, though, seem to be travelling in the wrong direction.
The family finally does enter Arizona at the ‘State Inspection Station’ beneath the striated red cliffs of Lupton, where Tom Joad assures the inspector they don’t intend to stay in the state any longer than it takes to cross it.
Indeed, they don’t seem to linger in Arizona and soon reach the soaring steel arch of the Old Trails Bridge, where Route 66 crosses the Colorado River into California, at Topock. The bridge carried the main road from 1916 until 1948, but modern traffic uses the I-40 just to the north.
Mightily unimpressed by their first glimpse of the “land of milk and honey”, the family drives across the bridge to be greeted by signs for the town of Needles and for ‘Carty's Camp’, a group of tourist cabins and a filling station, now abandoned behind the 1947 66 Motel.
Needles was the furthest east the main cast traveled, and it’s here they strip down to long johns to bathe in the waters of the Colorado River.
A drive through the Mojave Desert, with its distinctive Joshua Trees, brings them to the scruffy and overcrowded ‘Hooverville’ transient settlement, which was built back on the Fox lot in Los Angeles.
Having to leave the camp, the Joads now find themselves ushered through crowds into the ‘Keene Ranch’, where they get the feeling something isn’t quite right. This settlement was constructed on the Janss Conejo Ranch at Thousand Oaks, northwest of Los Angeles. The 10,000 acre ranch was originally used to raise thoroughbred horses but, photogenically framed by the Santa Susanna Mountains and Simi Hills, it became like Lasky Mesa increasingly used as a film backdrop. The ranch was particularly popular in the Fifties and Sixties for television Western series such as The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, and Bonanza. In 1969, the land was bought and most of it developed into the city now called Thousand Oaks. Part of the original open land remains as Wildwood Park, 928 West Avenida de los Arboles – only about 10 miles west of Lasky Mesa, where the Joads’ journey had started.
The film ends on a more optimistic note than the book, with the family leaving the exploitative ranch for the optimism of a well-run government camp.
The ‘Farmworkers’ Wheat Patch Camp’, run by the Department of Agriculture and known as the ‘Weedpatch’, was based on the real-life Arvin Federal Government Camp near Bakersfield, California, and indeed part of the film was shot here.
Built in 1936 as a response to the poor hygiene and lack of security in the increasing number of squatters’ camps, the Weedpatch originally consisted of canvas tents on plywood platforms – for the residents – with permanent buildings to house the community functions such as administration, community hall, post office, library and barber shop.
The tents were later replaced by more permanent wood frame shacks. The camp still stands – the Library and Post Office buildings having been moved and restored, among several buildings placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Weedpatch Camp has been taken over by the Kern County Housing Authority which administers it as the Sunset Labor Camp, which to this day still assists migrant farm workers. It stands on Sunset Boulevard east of Weedpatch Highway, just south of Lamont, to the southeast of Bakersfield.