1940 Fifty Years Ago

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John Ford’s film The Grapes of Wrath opened in January to immediate acclaim. Though Ford and the screenwriter Nunnally Johnson softened the political anger of John Steinbeck’s novel, their haunting film captured the bleakness and despair that accompanied fugitives from the Oklahoma dust bowl on their way to California.

James Thurber and Elliott Nugent’s three-act comedy The Male Animal opened on January 9 at Broadway’s Cort Theater. Nugent, who also played the lead role in the production, and Thurber examined the issues of academic freedom and sexual jealousy “in the anti-heroic style of Mr. Thurber’s solemn drawings and crack-brained literary style,” as one reviewer wrote. Henry Fonda and Ronald Reagan would star in later motion-picture adaptations of the play.

Alarmed by Japanese military and economic expansion in the Pacific, the United States allowed its 1911 commercial treaty with Japan to expire on January 26. Secretary of State Cordell Hull informed Tokyo that the two countries would continue to trade on a day-today basis.

The first Social Security checks went into the mail on January 30. The initial check, totaling $22.54, went to a Vermont widow named Ida May Fuller, who received more than $20,000 in benefits before her death in 1975 at the age of one hundred.