The Great Depression’s impact on the explanation of the successes and failures of the characters in “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” and “The Grapes of Wrath”

Paper 2: Comparative Interpretive Summary
February 26, 2020
Prompt: How do you assess the European impact on the rest of the world in the early modern period (1500-1750)?
February 26, 2020

If films often reflect the values, attitudes, hopes, and fears of the societies that make them, we should be able to measure the impact FDR and the New Deal had on the nation through the films of the 1930s. How is that impact evident in the ways “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” (1932) and “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940) explain the success and failure of their protagonists?

The 4 sources are the 2 films and 2 FDR speeches (all attached)

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Suggestions:

• At first glance the two films seem to have little in common. James Allen in “Chain Gang” is an escaped convict fleeing the law, whereas the Joads in “Grapes of Wrath” are sharecropping farmers displaced by the Dust Bowl. Yet reduced to their lowest common denominator both films touch on similar themes at the core of the American experience in the 1930: success and failure. Both Allen and the Joads face abject failure and both hunger for success.

• How does “Chain Gang” explain the causes of James Allen’s failure? To whom or what can he turn for help? At the end of the film how hopeful are his prospects?

• How does “Grapes of Wrath” explain the Joads’ failure? To whom or what can they turn for help? At the end of the film how hopeful are the Joads’ prospects?

• Only eight years separate the films, but consider what happened to the nation between 1932 and 1940. In 1932 Herbert Hoover was president, national unemployment was 25%, and the economy was in the worst shape in US history. In 1940 FDR was completing his second term as president, the New Deal was complete, and while the Depression was far from over, unemployment was down to about 14% and the economy was somewhat more prosperous. How might these eight years have affected Americans’ understanding of success, failure, and the role of government?

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