Oscars Flashback: 'Grapes of Wrath' and Its Depiction of Nomads Won in 1941

THE GRAPES OF WRATH, Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson, 1940
20th Century Fox / Courtesy: Everett Collection

From left: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell and Russell Simpson in 1940's 'The Grapes of Wrath.'

Decades before Chloé Zhao won the Golden Globe for directing 'Nomadland,' John Ford's adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel earned Academy Awards for best director and best supporting actress (Jane Darwell).

If Chloé Zhao manages to nab this year's directing Oscar for Nomadland, she won't be the first to win for a drama about down-on-their-luck itinerant workers making their way across the American West.

John Ford was awarded the statuette in 1941 for his adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel The Grapes of Wrath, which sees the Joad family abandon the Oklahoma farm they lost to the Great Depression and Dust Bowl and head to California — a fabled promised land — in a broken-down 1926 Hudson Super Six sedan. Along the way, they are beset by all sorts of tragedy: the grandparents die, various relatives abandon them, they are stranded at a destitute work camp, and son Tom (Henry Fonda), who only recently got out of prison, accidentally kills a security guard, sending the family fleeing the law. The film was executive produced by Darryl F. Zanuck for 20th Century Fox, where he was vp production.

Despite the 1939 novel's blockbuster status — it was the top-selling book of that year, having moved 430,000 copies — the executive was nervous about the socialist leanings of the source material. So he sent a few private investigators to Oklahoma to see if the conditions in the state were really as bad as Steinbeck had described. Informed that the Okies were truly existing at a life-or-death level of poverty, Zanuck became convinced that his feature could withstand any attacks that might deem it pro-Communist propaganda and gave it a green light. Filming began on Oct. 4, 1939, and wrapped Nov. 16, with a combination of soundstage production (on Stage 5 at Fox Studios in Century City) and location work (in Oklahoma, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico).

Budgeted at $800,000 ($15 million today), The Grapes of Wrath grossed $2.5 million ($47 million with inflation). Besides Ford's victory (his second of four), Jane Darwell took home the best supporting actress award for her work as Ma Joad. (Fonda, meanwhile, lost the best actor Oscar to James Stewart of The Philadelphia Story.)

This story first appeared in a March stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.