Friday, April 15, 2011

The Elements of a Scene: Personality

This is the second in a series analyzing the elements in a scene from The Grapes of Wrath. For this entry, I want to talk about personality and how it affects the scene's action.

The act of buying a loaf of bread is not particularly dramatic; it's not the kind of scene that performers fight to do. Yet, we learn an awful lot about Pa Joad, played by Russell Simpson, through his attempt. First, he is polite. While his conversation is with a waitress, not a profession high on the social scale, he always ends his sentences with "Ma'am." He never raises his voice to her, even when she doesn't cooperate. He is also persistent. While the waitress keeps throwing roadblocks in his way, he doesn't give up. He explains the reasons for his actions and provides as much detail as is necessary to move things forward.

While he is quiet and deferential, he is also proud. When the waitress tries to get 15 cents out of him for the loaf and he can't afford it, he asks her to cut off 10 cents worth. When Bert, the fry cook, tells him to take the whole thing, Pa raises his voice for the only time in the scene. "No sir! We only want 10 cents worth." While he is poor and struggling, he doesn't want charity. He wants to pay his way.

The last thing to say about Pa Joad is that he is altruistic. He is not buying the bread for himself, but for his mother-in-law, who has no teeth. Later in the scene, though we know he's counting every penny, he spends a penny on his children. While he has spent considerable effort in the diner, none of it has been on his own behalf.

The waitress is a very interesting character. She knows the truck drivers by name and sits next to Bill. Her question, "Heard any good etchings lately, Bill?" requires some explanation. In the early 20th century, if a man invited a woman up to see his etchings, it was an invitation for sex. In this scene, screenwriter Nunnally Johnson has used the audience's familiarity with the use of the word "etchings" to have the waitress ask the truck driver if he's heard any dirty jokes lately. The construction is clumsy, though; how can anybody "hear" etchings? Johnson couldn't have her ask about dirty jokes directly as the censors in the Hays office would have cut the line. By using a euphemism, Johnson could count on the adults in the audience picking up the meaning without saying anything explicit that the censors could object to.

The line is important as it marks the waitress as somewhat vulgar and low class.The audience doesn't have high expectations of her and her subsequent actions confirm the audience's opinion. When Pa Joad makes his request, she has multiple reasons why she can't give him what he wants. When Bert says to give Pa the bread, she objects to Bert, too, saying that they'll run out before the bread truck comes. When she gets up to go get the bread around 1:01 in the clip, she is clearly not happy. When she returns with the bread, she's still trying to get full price for it. She is stubborn and clearly doesn't care about Pa Joad's problems.

Only at 1:38 in the clip, after Pa and Bert have tussled, does the waitress give in. Interestingly, she says, "Bert says to take it." She won't take responsibility for what's happening. She only takes ownership of a charitable act when Pa inquires about the candy. When she's called on it by the the truck driver, her response is a surly, "What's it to you?" She doesn't want to appear soft. Only after the truck drivers don't take their change, does she warm to the idea of people helping others.

The truck drivers say nothing while Pa Joad is present. However, director John Ford does keep them in the action. The truck driver near the cash register swallows uncomfortably when he looks at the children's poor attire and their hungry stares at the candy. The drivers exchange knowing looks when the waitress says that the candies are two for a penny. Bill calls the waitress on her charity in an accusing manner, but the drivers are clearly sympathetic to Pa Joad's plight as they endorse the waitress's actions by leaving extra money.

Imagine this scene if these personalities were different. If Pa Joad became frustrated and started yelling, I doubt that the truck drivers would sit passively during the confrontation. If the waitress responded sympathetically to the information about the old lady with no teeth, Pa Joad would have gotten the bread a lot sooner. Given the waitress's attraction to Bill, what would have happened if Pa Joad flattered the waitress and flirted with her? Would she warm up to him or be repulsed by him? How would the scene play out if the fry cook agreed with the waitress that they couldn't spare the bread? How would everyone react if the children were bratty and made demands for the candy, rather than looking at it silently?

If you change the personality of any of these characters, you have a different scene. The actions that occur are the direct result of the characters' personalities. If you're in story or in animation, you've got to know who the characters are if you're going to have a scene that makes sense.

Addendum: For contrast, here's another diner scene with an uncooperative waitress. It's from Five Easy Pieces. Jack Nicholson is as persistent as Pa Joad, but as you'll see, not nearly as polite. These two clips are good examples of the term "character driven." The personalities of the characters determine the outcomes of the scenes.


Michael Sporn said...

These analyses are excellent. I keep ret urning looking for more. Thanks, Mark. You're keeping me on my toes as I animate a new scene.

Steve said...

You ought to be charging for these posts. These offer a wealth of insight for us writers as well. Thank you.

AndrewRoot said...

Superb! I wait for part 3!:D

Todd Bridges said...

Thanks for that insightful analysis, Forrest Gump.