A Great Moment in Film: The Original Contract for the Film Rights to “The Grapes of Wrath”, One of the Greatest Films Ever Made, Signed by the Book’s Author, John Steinbeck

This film was one of the Library of Congress’s Top 25 American Films when the U.S. National Film Registry was established

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“The undersigned, Viking Press, Inc. and John Steinbeck hereby sells, grants, conveys and assigns to the Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation…talking motion picture rights…that he may have in and to the original composition entitled “The Grapes of Wrath”…” A unique and compelling piece of American cinematic history

 

“The Grapes of...

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A Great Moment in Film: The Original Contract for the Film Rights to “The Grapes of Wrath”, One of the Greatest Films Ever Made, Signed by the Book’s Author, John Steinbeck

This film was one of the Library of Congress’s Top 25 American Films when the U.S. National Film Registry was established

“The undersigned, Viking Press, Inc. and John Steinbeck hereby sells, grants, conveys and assigns to the Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation…talking motion picture rights…that he may have in and to the original composition entitled “The Grapes of Wrath”…” A unique and compelling piece of American cinematic history

 

“The Grapes of Wrath” won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for fiction in 1940 and helped John Steinbeck earn the Nobel Prize awarded him in 1962 (which turned on the “keen social perception” in this book). At the time of the Dust Bowl, when hundreds of thousands of Americans migrated to the West Coast (mainly California) in search of a better life, Steinbeck was writing a series of seven articles about migrant worker communities for the San Francisco Chronicle. He spent a lot of time getting to know families who lived in various migrant worker camps in towns like Bakersfield and Visalia, and was angered and disgusted by the amount of heartbreak and suffering that he witnessed. He channeled those emotions as he wrote his classic – “The Grapes of Wrath”.

Published in 1939 by Viking Press, “The Grapes of Wrath” vividly portrays life during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in America as it follows a family of Oklahoma tenant farmers driven from their home by drought, economic hardship, agricultural industry changes, and bank foreclosures forcing tenant farmers out of work. The family traveled westward to California seeking jobs, land, dignity, and a future. It explores the strength and goodness of the human spirit in the face of gruesome, truly dismal circumstances.

This novel had a profound impact in America. Many people applauded Steinbeck for capturing so honestly the lives of migrant farm workers during the Depression, and starkly pointing out conditions they faced. There were calls for social action in response. Eleanor Roosevelt took interest, and as a result she called for congressional hearings on migrant worker camp conditions. Labor laws were changed. Others accused Steinbeck of being a socialist and of championing leftist beliefs.

Confident that the book would be a smash hit, Hollywood rushed to make a film on the book even as it first hit the book shops. The film they made, “The Grapes of Wrath”, is widely considered one of the greatest films of all time. It was produced by Darryl F. Zanuck for Twentieth Century Fox, directed by John Ford, and starred Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including for Best Picture, Actor (Fonda), Film Editing, Sound and Writing. Ford won the Best Director Oscar and actress Darwell won Best Actress for her portrayal of Ma Joad. In 1989, “The Grapes of Wrath” was one of the first 25 films to be selected for preservation by the Library of Congress for its U.S. National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

This is the original contract in which Twentieth Century Fox obtained the rights from John Steinbeck and Viking Press to make the film “The Grapes of Wrath”. It is one of the most important, if not the most important, piece of American film history to ever reach the market.

Document signed, on Twentieth Century Fox’s own stationery, one sheet with text on both sides, New York, April 24, 1939, just days after the novel’s initial release. It provides: “…the undersigned, Viking Press, Inc. and John Steinbeck hereby sells, grants, conveys and assigns to the Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation…the right, title and interest of the undersigned, throughout the world, in and to the silent, sound, and dialogue, and talking motion picture rights…that he may have in and to the original composition entitled “The Grapes of Wrath”…” It identifies the author as John Steinbeck, the publisher as Viking Press, and gives the copyright date as April 16, 1939. Steinbeck and the president of Viking Press, Harold Guinzberg, have signed at the conclusion on the verso, and the contract has been notarized there, the notary stating that Steinbeck had personally appeared before her.

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