Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 17, 2017

In Dubious Battle

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:11 pm

Steinbeck’s Red Devils

When I received email from a publicist announcing the premiere of a film based on John Steinbeck’s “In Dubious Battle” directed by and starring James Franco that opens on Friday, February 17th, I knew at the outset that this would not be in the same league as John Ford’s 1940 masterpiece “The Grapes of Wrath”. Everything I have heard from Franco in the past five years or so persuades me that outside of acting he overestimates his talents, whether it is writing poetry or teaching classes in the NYU film school. If he wants to become a renaissance man, it would probably be best for him to stick to projects he is qualified for, like being named the face of Gucci’s men’s fragrance line.

Like most people I suppose, my knowledge of Steinbeck is based on “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men”, a novella I read in high school. The publicist provided a synopsis of the film: “In the California apple country, nine hundred migratory workers rise up against the landowners after getting paid a faction of the wages they were promised. The group takes on a life of its own—stronger than its individual members and more frightening.” I said to myself that even if Franco makes a mess of this Steinbeck story, it would still be worth watching for the subject matter alone. Guess what. I was wrong.

Steinbeck’s novel was based on historical events. In the early 1930s, farmworkers in California fought pitched battles with the agribusinesses we became familiar with in the 1960s when the UFW was fighting to organize farmworkers in the lettuce fields and grape vineyards.

The earlier strikes were organized by the Communist-led Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU). Franco stars as Mac McLeod, a Communist organizer who has taken raw CP recruit Jim Nolan (Nat Wolff) under his wing. The two of them head off to the fictional Torgas Valley, where they begin working at an apple orchard owned by Bolton, an old-school capitalist pig reminiscent of C. Montgomery Burns on “The Simpsons”. Not long after starting work, they learn with the rest of the men that their pay will been cut from 25 to 20 cents per hour. They can take it or leave it. Robert Duvall, a long-time Republican outlier in Hollywood, was cast as Bolton. No method acting preparation was required from someone who belonged to a labor-hating political party.

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  1. At twelve I saw Ford’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ and Steinbeck became my hero. He lasted till ‘Travels with Charley’ a 1962 potboiler milking the notoriety of his Nobel due in a couple of months. To hoof about the 48 to see what was going on front-lawn level was my dream. He did it in a trailer–no ‘mobile homes’ yet–which was okay, but I’d have preferred he walked like Lenny and George in ‘Of Mice and Men’ (Lon Chaney and Burgess Meredith 1939, not Malkovitch and Sinese 1992). My “Say-it-ain’t-so,-Joe” moment came when I heard Nobel Steinbeck never got to half the places he described, made up the dialogue, shot home during the supposed whole year away and shacked up in good hotels on the road. I had another look at ‘Grapes’. Something had made me uneasy about the smooth New Deal Resettlement good-guy. Why did he talk to the Okies as if they were children? We lived in ‘Studs Lonigan’ Chicago and adored F.D.R. The family figured he got my widowed grandmother–a working seamstress at 70–the mortgage that pulled us through the Depression. But the Machine’s precinct captain who took charge of our vote knew better than to talk down to us.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — February 18, 2017 @ 11:06 am

  2. (HT to Andrew Stewart)

    From the collected letters of Steinbeck…

    [Pacific Grove] (February 1936)

    Dear Louis Paul:

    I don’t like communists either, I mean I dislike them as people. I rather imagine the apostles had the same waspish qualities and the New Testament is proof that they had equally bad manners. But this dislike is personal. I never knew D. H. Lawrence either. The whole idea of the man turns my stomach. But he was a good writer, and some of these communist field workers are strong, pure, inhumanly virtuous men. Maybe that’s another reason I personally dislike them and that does not redound to my credit. However, that’s not important.

    I haven’t an idea what the press will do, nor do I much care. I have enough money now to live and write for three years if we are careful and I can get a hell of a lot of words down in three years.

    You ask why you never see my stuff in Esquire. I guess they were never interested. I have a good many stories in New York but no one wants them. 1 wrote g short stories at one sitting recently. I thought some of them were pretty good, too, but that’s as far as it got. The North American Review used to print some at 30 dollars a crack.

    I have to start [writing] and am scared to death as usual—miserable sick feeling of inadequacy. I’ll love it once I get down to work. Hope you’ll be out before too long.

    Sincerely, John Steinbeck

    Comment by louisproyect — February 18, 2017 @ 3:42 pm

  3. It occurred to me, Robert Duvall also played a corporate boss facing a union drive in the musical NEWSIES. (In that movie, he played newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, confronted by newsboys led by a young Christian Bale.)

    Comment by James Matthews — February 18, 2017 @ 7:08 pm

  4. G’day Louis,
    Thanks for your review on James Franco’s adaption of Steinbeck’s novel.
    Think I’ll give it a miss.
    It seems that Steinbeck wrote more out of pity than empathy.

    John Boyle

    Comment by John Boyle — February 19, 2017 @ 8:08 am

  5. “In an interview with Filmmaker magazine, Franco explained his approach to the original ”

    No he didn’t, he completely changed the ending, and added in excess regarding the romance angle.


    Comment by CB — February 19, 2017 @ 8:09 pm

  6. Re: ‘Scab Economy: Article well done and badly needed. I am including my March 1, 2017 letter to Terre Haute Tribune-Star.

    President Trump’s administration personifies the unproductive phlegm of capitalist profit. Social parasites of tax evasion and freewheeling usury. Beneath Donald’s daily tweets that dance around the hysterical drama of liberal media…moves the real fascist threat and direction. That is, UNION BUSTING! Mussolini and Hitler’s primary hidden agenda.
    American prosperity was not built upon evangelical bliss or business acumen. It was built upon the spending power and stability of high wages won by union organization. Even unorganized wages were kept high to competitively contend with organized union demands. Good economy does not trickle down from corporate billionaires; it spreads around through a prosperous population.
    Last week Missouri became the 28th “right to work (for low wages)” state. Vice Pence is supporting a lawsuit in Illinois to achieve the same. Achieved nationally will betray the hard work and high wages fought for by our grandparents.
    History records how nationalist fevers have baited and provoked such betrayals. Resist Trumps pitch to take the bait again. Resist this fascist direction!

    Thomas G. Morgan

    Comment by Thomas G. Morgan — March 3, 2017 @ 10:07 pm

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