Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Of Mice and Men (1939)

Director: Lewis Milestone

The 1930s for America was a time defined by the Great Depression where portions of the popular did not know where their living would come from day to day. This is the subject of the successful 1937 John Steinbeck novella “Of Mice and Men.” In 1939 surprisingly this story would be adapted for the silver screen by a studio known for goofy comedies from the likes of the Our Gang as well as Laurel and Hardy, making its first venture into the realm of drama. The first of many screen adaptions of the Steinbeck story Hal Roach Studios’ Of Mice and Men portrays a serious drama about men living in the Dust Bowl, dealing with serious matters including survival and mental disabilities. With a small cast with relative unknowns the film would be a critically praised standing well against the test of time as a heartbreaking tale that leaves many in tears.

Of Mice and Men is a drama based on the John Steinbeck story about two roaming ranch hands trying to get by in the world of the Depression in dustbowl-era California. George (Burgess Meredith) and Lennie (Lon Chaney Jr.) are two friends that look out for each other wandering California for work during tough times. George is the smarter of the two who makes up for his stature with determination , while Lennie if the large muscle, although he suffers from a mental disability that gives his the brain that can be likened to a small boy. While they dream of one day owning their own farm, George sets them up with ranch hand positions working for the quick tempered Curly (Bob Steele), whose compensates his own small height with threats and violence, especially to large men like Lennie. Lennie’s affinity for pretty little things leads him to accidently killing his new puppy after petting him too hard, followed by unintentionally killing Curly’s attractive, yet frustrated wife Mae (Betty Field) after he attempts to silence her screams when he only wishes to pet her hair. Curly and a mob of migrant works give chase after Lennie, but George decides that only thing he can to help Lennie to spare him from the violent death that is sure to come by mercifully shooting Lennie in the back of the head, much like mercifully putting down a loved pet. It is this heartbreaking scene where George loses his best friend in which the feature concludes.

The film takes the story by John Steinbeck and carefully assembles it for the screen. Removing all the profanity and racism that bothered many readers, which caused it to be banned in American school libraries for a number of years, this picture fits masterfully this tale well into the silver screen and allows the plight of George and Lennie to be very real and touching.

Chaney and Meredith, two unknowns, in one of the most heartbreaking scenes
Burgess Meredith, an unknown actor outside of the New York theater, creates the perfect George, a small, yet determined laborer with e soft spot for his unintelligent friend, Lennie. Before his days as a relatively well loved pop culture figure, Meredith performed on Broadway in several successful small producions. He was not a name any audience would have recognized, but with the aid for Of Mice and Men, he would begin his work of the screen and become a beloved character actor for decades to come. His future popular works included his wonderful appearances on the earlier episodes of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, the Penguin in the campy Batman television series, or most famously as Mick, the tough, but lovable trainer in the Rocky movies beside Sylvester Stallone.

For George’s mentally challenged companion was the actor by the named of Creighton Chaney, who happened to take on the stage name of Lon Chaney Jr., being the son of the famous silent actor Lon Chaney, “the man of a thousand faces,” known for his roles in heavy make-up, usually with Universal Productions. Chaney’s portrayal of Lennie is a bit on the simple side, almost as if he was playing a five year-old boy in a large man’s body instead of a man with mental disabilities. That does not mean his performance was not effective, as it does grow on you. His Lennie is sympathetic; a lovable character who simply enjoys furry animals and happy things. His relationship with Meredith’s George is heartwarming until the ultimate sad conclusion where George must do the unthinkable to spare Lennie of pain.

Chaney’s performance would win him some attention, although his career would primarily be in horror films, dressed in heavy make-up much like his father, but with less substance. Perhaps it was the size of Lennie’s character, which the filmamkers made him look larger than he really was, that led him to become an actor that played primarily large monster characters in the future. His performance as Lennie would be parodied multiple time in Tex Avery animations and other Warner Bros. property cartoons giving silly hulking character the voice of Chaney’s Lennie and usually loving a character or object he named “George.”

Mae (Betty Field) was an expanded character for the film.
The character of Curly’s wife from the novella and stage play that followed would be fleshed out for the film in the role of Mae played by Betty Field. Curly’s wife, as she was simply known as in the source material, was more of an object in the original story , but in the film now was given more character and a name. Like many others in the movie, Field too was a newcomer to Hollywood having moved from the London stage, although she was a native Bostonian. The film portrays Mae in an almost unsympathetic manner, perhaps to make her death less tragic than Lennie’s. She is a selfish woman that, although overly held down by her husband Curly, wants to have people give her everything because she is pretty and nothing else. At times Field’s performance is strong, while at other moments she is practically whiny. What the filmmakers were doing is turning the object of “Curly’s wife” into a full character that we can know a little more about than being a pretty woman, but not having her overshadow George or Lennie even though Betty Field is labeled in the starring cast along with Meredith and Chaney..

Along with the unknown starring cast is a mix of supporting character actors. The film’s primary antagonist is Curly, played by the B-western actor Bob Steele. The one-handed, aging farm hand of Candy, whose story of his dog who he puts down parallels the tale of George and Lennie, is played by Roman Bohnen who rendered well sympathetic characters.

Critics would praise the surprising drama by Hal Roach Studios. Director Lewis Milestone manifested his creative liberties with fluid and dramatic camera moments that he had come to be known for by that time. The two-time Academy Award winning director would watch his film be nominated for four awards that year, including best picture. Despite the accolades the film did not do particularly well in the box office.

As time moved on the feature looked to have disappeared from existence until reappearing in the independent theater circuit in the 1980s, rejuvenating the film, discovering entirely new fans that sang the picture’s praises. Contemporary audiences enjoy the feature as an early work of Burgess Meredith apart from being a very fine representation of the classic John Steinbeck story. Of Mice and Men holds up well as the black and white feature capturing the struggles of the Dust Bowl period as it was still affecting areas of the country, bringing the dramatic tale to life. There would be many future adaptions of the story, but this version continues to be one of it’s finest.

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