Monday, September 20, 2010
Of Mice And Men - John Steinbeck's Masterpiece On Film
Directed by Lewis Milestone (also known for All Quiet on the Western Front, Rain, Front Page and the 1962 version of Mutiny on the Bounty), Of Mice and Men had a rocky start. Due to contractual problems with Hal Roach Studio, Milestone was forced to sue the studio to win the right to film Of Mice and Men. Many well-known Hollywood stars were eager to be cast, but Milestone chose three relatively new movie actors, Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney Jr., and Betty Field for his main characters. Perhaps the greatest coup of all was the score written by classical composer Aaron Copeland. The fact that such a movie was made at Hal Roach Studios at all is rather unusual, since 99.9% of its films were slapstick comedies. In later years, Hal Roach was to say about Of Mice and Men: “It could have used a few laughs.” Well, thank heaven he didn’t produce or direct it.
Lon Chaney, Jr.
Steinbeck’s novel is not a difficult one to adapt to the screen. It is spare with narrative, utilizing the technique of the simple and concise sentence structure. The majority of the novel is dialogue, making it as easy as any novel could be to turn into a screenplay. It is the story of George and Lenny, two men who travel the road together looking for work during the Great Depression. George is a small man, intelligent and with a testy bite to his personality that masks the depth of a loving heart. The main object of his love, annoyance and protection is Lenny, a giant of a man who has the mind of a child. (As an interesting aside, although Chaney was already a big man, he wore specially built shoes that added 6 inches to his height.) Lenny depends upon George for everything, and George complains all the time about what a good life he could have if not for Lenny. Lenny loves to hear George complain. It is comforting to him somehow, since he also knows George would never leave him.
Despite George’s repeated command to tell no one of their plan for the farm, Lenny talks with Candy and Crooks. The men, hungry for a home of their own, ask if they can put in their own money and join in. At first George is angry and wants the farm only for Lenny and himself, but then realizes that with all their money together, the farm could be bought with another month’s pay. These homeless, drifting men talk about the place that will soon be theirs, a real home, and excitedly make plans for the purchase.
For those who have not read the book or seen the movie, that is as much of the story as I plan to tell. The cast of Of Mice and Men is ensemble acting at its best. The lovely Betty Field breaks your heart as Mae, Bob Steele’s performance makes you despise Curley, Charles Bickford is solid and strong as Slim, and the great character actor Roman Bohnen gives his usual first-rate performance as Candy, a man who thinks he has lost everything but finds hope with George and Lenny. Burgess Meredith did one of his finest pieces of work as George, and went on to do many good movies and television shows. Betty Field's career included fine performances in King's Row, Picnic and Bus Stop. Lon Chaney Jr’s movie career was spotty, doing well in another good part, The Wolfman, but being offered and taking increasingly bad parts in second-rate movies. But if Chaney had only played one part, Lenny, it would be remembered as one of the screen’s finest performances.
Of Mice and Men has been filmed two other times, once in 1981 as a made-for-TV movie with Robert Blake as George and Randy Quaid as Lenny. I cannot speak to this one, as I did not see it, but I have to say I am not a Robert Blake fan and, much as I like Randy Quaid, I’m not sure he would have the acting range to do justice to Lenny. Perhaps some of you have seen this version and could shed some light on it.
My first pick, however, is the original. My son says I never like remakes as much, and that is often the case, usually with good reason. 1939’s Of Mice and Men had everything, and it had two things that Sinise’s version, good as it was, did not. One was the incredible music of Aaron Copeland. I have always thought that a score can make a good movie great and a great movie a classic. The second is a personal preference, a particular love of mine, the magic of black and white cinematography, in this case brought to life by Norbert Brodine.
Of Mice and Men was released December 30, 1939. Gone With the Wind swept the Oscars in that year, which has come to be known as the golden year of classic Hollywood. The 9 other Best Picture-nominated classics were Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Dark Victory, Love Affair, Ninotchka and the little film with no name stars, Of Mice and Men. It was lauded over other greats that were not nominated, including The Women, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Roaring Twenties, Beau Geste, Golden Boy and Young Mr. Lincoln. Truly an incredible year, and an incredible testament to the power that was Lewis Milestone’s vision, Of Mice and Men.