We see auto camps in “The Grapes of Wrath” as well, but they are more like concentration camps and Hoovervilles. In one desperate transient camp, the Joad family eats meager stew with guilt, while hungry children outside the tent watch them. Tom Joad, played by Henry Fonda, chases them away, but Ma Joad, played by Jane Darwell, lets them scrape the pot with sticks.
The extended Joad family leaves their foreclosed farm in Oklahoma for a possible better future in California. Their ramshackle farm truck is loaded to the gills with mattresses furniture, tied up with ropes. Wash tubs and suitcases dangle from ropes like Christmas tree ornaments. Like the boy and the mother on the bus in “It Happened One Night” they are dealing with a reality more desperate than running away from a rich father.
Their vehicle becomes their home. “Think it’ll hold?” Fonda asks, and the preacher, played by John Carradine replies, “If it does, it’ll be a miracle out of Scripture.” As desperate as they are, they invite the preacher, who is homeless himself, to join them.
We see Jane Darwell’s stricken, proud face through the windshield. We see a montage of highway city limit signs. Both grandparents die along the side of the road, held and comforted until they do.
The Joads pay 50 cents for a space at an auto camp. The meet (and sometimes flirt) with other travelers like them.
Mr. Malcolm, in his book on Route 1 notes, “The Romans, it has been noted, used roads to spread their culture. For Americans, it often seems, roads are their culture: tacky and beautiful, narrow and wide, straight and curvy, crowded and vacant, smoothed and potholed, scenic and cluttered.” We see America as it was in a bleak period, but where not everything is entirely bleak. Humanity is present even here.
The Joads’ route takes them to remote diners where a kindly short order cook allows them to buy a loaf of bread for 10 cents. A brassy waitress sells 10 cents worth of stick candy for two cents to them, and a couple of truckers leave her a big tip to reward her generosity.
They pass through harsh and beautiful desert country, by pueblos and Southwest Indians herding sheep. At a gas station, two uniformed attendants remark to each other, “Them Oakies ain’t got no sense and no feelings. They ain’t human. No human being would live the way they do. Human beings couldn’t stand to be so miserable.”
We see our old friend Ward Bond in this film, too. Not a surly bus driver this time, he is a friendly traffic cop, a fellow Oklahoman, who, with regret and embarrassment, must sharply warn them to keep moving through his town or they will be arrested.
The Joads’ trials are never-ending it seems, but they eventually come to a government-run auto camp that is clean and safe, and the showers “and things” are outside. The Joad children are thunderstruck by their first encounter with a flush toilet.
Though their struggles are far from over, there is still hopefulness at the end. These two films show the humanity of their adventures, vicariously our adventures, on these road trips. It is a world without cruise control. They have very little control at all.
Still, Ma Joad exclaims, “We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out. They can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ‘cause we’re the people.” Once or twice the Joad family, and Gable and Colbert may glance in the rear view mirror, but they don’t dwell on what’s behind them.
That's all for this week. Have a great weekend. See you Monday.