It’s February 26, 1942. The 14th Academy Awards are taking place at the Biltmore Hotel in Hollywood. With 9 nominations, Citizen Kane is poised to have a monumental night and the crowning of Orson Welles as the new king of Hollywood seems only to be a formality. But when the night is over, the Best Picture and Director categories would be swept by How Green Was My Valley, the epic tale of a Welsh mining town starring Maureen O’Hara and directed by none other than…John Ford.
Even the most arbitrary film fan could tell you that Citizen Kane is known as the greatest film of all time. An opinion shared by film fans and filmmakers alike, but most notably the American Film Institute. So why did it lose on Oscar night? Maybe Orson Welles himself is the best person to explain it. Upon arriving in Hollywood, Welles was asked by reporters which directors inspired him, to which he famously replied: “I prefer the old masters…by which I mean, John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.” It is widely rumored that Orson Welles watched Stagecoach continuously while filming Citizen Kane. One needs only to watch the blocking and framing of both films as well as the practical sets used in both to see the similarities. But Orson Welles had more than just an affinity for John Ford while making his own masterpiece. He had Gregg Toland, one of the finest cinematographers in film history. Just before shooting Citizen Kane with Welles, Toland had just done two films with John Ford. 1940’s Oscar nominee The Long Voyage Home and the other was the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s quintessential Depression-era novel, The Grapes of Wrath. The Grapes of Wrath would not only win Ford his second Best Director Oscar but would also be another work of art to add to the outstanding portfolio Gregg Toland was already building. Before dying in his sleep of coronary thrombosis in 1948 at the age of 44, Gregg Toland was at the height of one of the finest bodies of work in cinema history. In addition to photographing The Long Voyage Home and The Grapes of Wrath, Toland also shot classics such as Citizen Kane, The Little Foxes, The Best Years Of Our Lives, and Wuthering Heights, for which he received his only Academy Award.
In The Grapes Of Wrath, Toland and Ford combined to bring Steinbeck’s classic novel to the screen and tell the quintessential story of the Great Depression. John Ford would trade in his stagecoach for the Joad family’s flatbed truck and run it through the wide open Western landscapes while Toland, drawing from photographer Dorothea Lange’s incredible series of portraits documenting the Depression era up close, produced shot after shot depicting the raw reality of Americans on the brink of poverty. With Henry Fonda, a John Ford favorite, playing the Depression era outlaw Tom Joad, Toland used both wide open spaces and tight framing in the opening shots to not only introduce the main character but also foreshadow where he is headed at the end of the film.
The film opens with Tom Joad walking down an empty country lane. In both wide shots and medium shots Joad appears as a shadow on the wide open, barren Midwestern landscape. It isn’t until he hitches a ride with a truck driver that we finally see a full shot of Henry Fonda’s face. Toland brilliantly frames Tom Joad in a tight shot inside the truck’s windshield. Joad who we will soon find out was just released from prison, already shows the feeling of confinement. Right away we can tell that the tall, thin man we just saw casually strolling along the country roads with his hands in his pockets is now stiff and getting increasingly uncomfortable with the truck driver’s inquisition about who he is and where is he going? When Joad gets out of the truck, he gives the driver a parting sneer as he sets off walking along the road, as he started the film and as he will end it…alone.
Moments later, after meeting the Preacher, Tom Joad returns to his family home and finds the farm and property deserted. Together, with the Preacher, Joad explores the dark, empty house with only the light of a candle. When the two men get spooked by a noise, they discover the Joad’s neighbor, Muley, hiding on the property. When they invite him into the house the three men crouch down around the candlelight as Muley relays the story of how the farm land was taken away from the families by the government. Leaning on the dark tone of the scene, Toland brilliantly exploits the darkness of the house. With the candlelight flickering off the faces of Joad, Muley, and the Preacher, Muley’s story takes on the air of a ghost story, with the Joad homestead resembling a haunted house. Muley caps off his tale of woe, one of the thousands shared by families of the Great Depression, describing himself as just “a ghost in a graveyard” as he remains unlawfully on the property that was taken from Tom Joad’s family.
The Grapes of Wrath would prove to be a monumental work for both Ford and Toland as it would cement Toland as a force behind the camera and it would give Ford his second Best Director Oscar, setting him up to become the first Director to win the award in consecutive years.
The other collaboration of 1940 between Ford and Toland was The Long Voyage Home based on plays written by Eugene O’Neill. A film about sailors coping with homesickness, threats from Nazi U-boats, and trying to sneak in a few drinks without the officers knowing is certainly not John Ford’s finest. The cramped quarters below deck handcuffed the man who was so talented at exploiting the wide open spaces of the American West. It is Toland who outshines Ford in this picture as we see his love for the Low Angle shot on full display. Using the narrow lanes of the ship’s port and starboard sides, Toland placed his camera on the deck and captured the sailors as they paced back and forth, having conversations, peering out to sea, or slipping and sliding as they try to take cover from a German aerial attack. One fabulous scene in particular is when the ship runs into bad weather. As waves crash on top of the deck, we see the camera being engulfed by the rushing water. It is clear that the low angle brilliance of The Long Voyage Home would only be a warmup for Toland’s next project with Orson Welles…Citizen Kane.