REVIEW: Of Mice and Men [1939]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: Approved | Runtime: 106 minutes | Release Date: December 24th, 1939 (USA)
Studio: United Artists
Director(s): Lewis Milestone
Writer(s): Eugene Solow / John Steinbeck (novel)

“I ain’t gonna say a word”

We’ve all read John Steinbeck‘s classic novella Of Mice and Men and I believe teenagers will continue doing so in Middle/High School for the foreseeable future. What may change—and if memory serves me correctly might have already changed upon my turn at flipping the pages—is which cinematic version teachers show afterwards. As we move further and further into the twenty-first century I can imagine the numbers of kids intrinsically bored by the sight of black and white growing exponentially with each tick of the clock. So to see Gary Sinise‘s 1992 adaptation nestled beside Lewis Milestone‘s seminal, Oscar-nominated version may not be a hard choice for the wrong reason. You should automatically select the 1939 original, but sadly it’s color that has tipped the scale conversely.

No disrespect to Sinise or John Malkovich who played the roles of George Milton and Lennie Small on stage and surely transposed the characters onscreen admirably. But could anyone be as perfectly cast as Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr.? These two embody the cousins Steinbeck gave life to just two years before the film bowed in New York City. Meredith’s mix of gruff toughness and surprising heart opposite Chaney’s brute physicality and innocent sweetness is exactly as we imagined on the page. They are thick as thieves roaming town to town for field work during the Great Depression; running as fast as they can to escape whatever non-malicious yet unforgiveable trouble the latter’s simple oaf got into that the former’s sharp partner must ultimately protect him from.

We are dropped right into the action with George and Lennie chased through the tall grass by men with guns. For all we know these two are vagrants: thieves or murderers hunted down by the law who barely reach an open train car for escape. Soon enough, though, we see they’re anything but. Even before our presumptions are assuaged by truth we know they aren’t bad men. One can barely speak three words without an excitable guffaw and the other, despite his coarse tongue, proves to possess nothing but love for his friend. They’re simply two guys living in a world that’s become difficult to do so in, two men striving to build a nest egg in order to achieve their dream of owning land and employing themselves.

The Jackson estate may be just the place to do so. Old Man Jackson’s (Oscar O’Shea) a bit of a taskmaster but he’s got business sense to keep workers happy. Lead rancher Slim (Charles Bickford) is effective and independent, holding sway and respect. Candy (Roman Bohnen) may be handicapped, but he’s no less prideful in pulling his weight. Neither is Crooks (Leigh Whipper), kept on as the resident whipping boy (being the lone black man) despite fulfilling his job. If not for one detail this ranch has everything our boys could ever need to keep their heads down and move forward with a smile. But that detail—the boss’ son (Bob Steele‘s Curley)—is a doozy to overcome. His presence alone clouds an honest job in bad temperament.

Add the fact that Curley’s a newlywed to a girl who cannot be kept cooped up in a silent house with no one to talk to (Betty Field‘s Mae) and trouble most definitely brews strong. Curley’s jealousy and rage don’t suit a situation of his own making and the others become guilty by association even if they manage to steer clear of her search for companionship. He’s got a Grand Canyon-sized Napoleon complex and his inability to earn respect from Slim and therefore everyone down the line has him itching for a fight. Poor Lennie’s the only one he can pull one over on and doing so to a man that size fuels his fire. Suddenly a potentially peaceful situation with green pastures on the horizon turns explosive.

Steinbeck’s tale is full of isolated folks unable to stay afloat psychologically and emotionally. There’s racism, ageism, and sexism all forcing otherwise decent human beings into a position that seems attractive on paper in a semblance of autonomy but truly is just a cage kept away from the rest. This is why everyone is so interested in George and Lennie’s relationship—they’ve been together for years, looking after one another and becoming stronger as a result. George laments how life could be easier without Lennie by his side, but we know he’d only have ended up in a ditch, penniless and bruised. Lennie provides him a sense of duty and responsibility, one that makes him want to save and invest rather than spend and lose it all.

Everyone’s stuck in a rut they cannot escape because there’s nowhere else to go. Familiarity is the name of the game, stability trumping evolution. These are the fears of the lonely with nothing to live for but the moment because nothing else is guaranteed. George and Lennie inject a glimmer of optimism into an otherwise stagnant world, their dreams colored with vivid possibilities those around them begin to see as real. But such flights of hope are the stuff of fairy tale and this isn’t one. Of Mice and Men instead reveals itself a tome of empathetic pragmatism. It portrays the infectious joy of a child as volatile as it is innocent and puts the hard truths of survival and mortality in the hands of the sobering strong.

The tragedy of what occurs is depicted with grace and loyalty towards its source material. Milestone and cinematographer Nobert Brodine do well at keeping everything necessary onscreen and everything not off. There are two gunshots heard and both hold more meaning in the silent reactions of those listening than with the victim of their work. And the actors providing that emotional resonance are memorably up to the task. Field can go a bit over-the-top at times, but her stir-crazy existence allows it. Steele is authentically complex despite Curley’s shallow nature; Whipper and Bohnen miraculous examples of life hidden beneath exterior defeat; and Bickford a pillar of strength. Each admirably complements Meredith and Chaney, our central pair effortlessly conjuring smiles in good times and tears in fate’s cold reality.

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