"The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" ... Bogart, Shakespeare, The Maltese Falcon, Those Great Movies

Monday, September 20, 2010

Of Mice And Men - John Steinbeck's Masterpiece On Film

Some works of stage and screen are sad and bring us to tears. Others come under the category of the tragedy, a form of literature that is not so common. That is not to say that the whole story is laden with sorrow. On the contrary, the central and supporting characters are people we grow to care for, laugh with and love. An authentic tragedy receives this designation because it describes conflict between the central characters and a superior, unstoppable force, eg. destiny, resulting in devastating consequences. Shakespeare, for instance, is famous for his tragedies. Our great American author, John Steinbeck, has written two of the greatest tragedies in literature. The Grapes of Wrath is one. The other is the subject of this article, his 1937 novel Of Mice and Men, and the 1939 adaptation of the book to film. The title is taken from a poem by Scotland’s great poet, Robert Burns. The English translation of the verse is: “The best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray, and leave us naught but grief and pain for promised joy.”

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.

Burgess Meredith

Lon Chaney, Jr.

Betty Field

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.

When the story begins, George and Lenny have been forced to leave a job in another town. Lenny’s child-like mind has caused a serious problem. Lenny loves to feel soft things, and had become fascinated with the fabric of a girl’s dress. He had reached out to feel the dress, the girl screamed, and in a panic Lenny held on tighter, unable to decide what to do. Townspeople became convinced that Lenny had tried to rape the girl, and George and Lenny had to flee by night. They are on their way to a job at a ranch, and stop at a stream in the woods to rest before arriving at the ranch.  While the two men heat beans on a fire, George notices Lenny has taken something out of his pocket and is holding it. George demands to see what it is, and Lenny sheepishly shows him a little dead mouse. “Jus’ a dead mouse, George. I didn’ kill it. Honest! I found it dead.” George takes the mouse and throws it across the stream. Lenny wistfully says “I could pet it with my thumb while we walked along.” George reminds Lenny of what just happened the last time he wanted to feel something soft. The two men eat and talk and then Lenny asks George to tell him about the rabbits. George and Lenny have a dream. They want to save up enough of a stake to buy a little farm George knows about. They almost have enough saved, and their dream is beginning to look like a reality. A little farm, with chickens and a garden, “…and rabbits, George! Don’t forget I get to tend the rabbits!” George tells the well-worn story as if he were reading a book, and Lenny reminds him of parts he has left out, just like a child who knows a well-loved story by heart.

When the two men arrive at the ranch to work, they are sent to the bunkhouse to settle in for work. They meet Slim, the mule skinner, sensible and kind (Charles Bickford); Candy (Roman Bohnen), a man with one arm who works as a swamper and keeps his beloved old dog by his side; Crooks, the exiled black man (Leigh Whipper) who must live by himself in a little room off the barn, and the other men who work the ranch. The job looks pretty good, the men seem amiable enough. Then the boss’s son, Curley (Bob Steele), comes to the bunkhouse looking for his wife. Curley is a sullen little bully, a short man who resents anyone bigger than himself. He is also insanely jealous of anyone who may have seen her or talked to her. Curley spots the massive Lenny, who gives Curley a happy smile. Curley instantly targets Lenny and turns his hostility on him. Lenny is confused and scared, and the situation is finally defused by the other men, who tell George and Lenny to steer clear of Curley and his pretty young wife.

Curley’s wife Mae (Betty Field) is an unhappy and lonely girl. Her husband is a bully, her father-in-law a harsh man, and she has no one to talk to. In Steinbeck’s novel, she is referred to only as “Curley’s wife”, but was given the name Mae for the movie. Mae was a name with a slightly unsavory tone to it in the 1930’s, and indeed Mae is a bit of a tramp, but only in dress and manner. None of the men will have anything to do with her because of Curley, and only Lenny, who has been warned by George to leave Mae alone, is enough of a child to forget the warning and be kind to her.

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.

Curley makes another visit to the bunkhouse looking for Mae, certain that she is with Slim, who has earned Curley’s hatred by being a strong, confident man who does not pay any attention to Curley’s boasting and strutting. Poor Lenny again becomes Curley’s target, only this time Curley begins to hit and beat him. Lenny puts his arms up to protect himself and calls for George to help him. The men all shout at Lenny to stop Curley, protect himself. Then Lenny grabs Curley’s hand and begins to squeeze. Curley screams and goes down on his knees, his hand in Lenny’s relentless grasp. George is forced to shout and hit Lenny to make him stop. Lenny is in a sort of trance, and continues to squeeze. Lenny finally hears George and lets go with a gasp, unable to understand what has happened. Curley’s hand is squeezed to pulp. The men warn Curley that if he says anything, they will spread it all over that he was beaten and crying. Curley, always fearful of humiliation, agrees to keep quiet about Lenny, but his hatred for Lenny is dangerously inflamed.

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.

In 1992, Gary Sinise produced, directed and acted as George in a theatrical release. John Malkovich was Lenny, with Sherilynn Fenn as Curley’s wife. It did not do well at the box office, but in my opinion it was an excellent movie. Sinise and Malkovich were wonderful as George and Lenny. John Malkovich is not a big man, and the costume designer did an all-out job designing his clothes with padding and built-up shoes to make Malkovich look large-muscled and strong. The movie also features veteran actor Lew Ayres as Candy.  Classic movie buffs will remember Lew Ayres from his role in the 1930's serial Dr. Kildare.  Sinise's version is well worth seeing.

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.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Victorian Beauty and Futuristic Horror -- The Time Machine

All of us have certain movies that capture something that speaks to our dreams. Usually I suppose they are the great dramas, but I have found that isn’t always the case. The Time Machine, released by MGM in 1960, mesmerized me as it began, even before the credits. It begins with silence, then the tiny ticking of a clock that moves across the screen. Then more clocks pass by, each with their own cadence, becoming a little larger and a little louder until finally London’s Big Ben gives its thunderous toll and the music crashes in to begin the title and credits. The Time Machine pulls you along from the picturesque, quiet Victorian age of great beauty, to excitement and action, and on to horrific futuristic events as the time traveler takes his journey.

George Pal produced and directed The Time Machine, based on H.G. Wells’ novel of the same name. The screenplay takes many liberties with Wells’ original novel, but then when has that ever been a problem for Hollywood? Pal’s other well-known movies include The War of the Worlds (1953), Houdini (1953) and Conquest of Space (1955). Pal had been an animator for most of his career, and his best movies carry his stamp of thrilling, larger-than-life story telling, with dynamic music and vivid, eye-popping color. However, with The Time Machine, Pal created more than just an action sci-fi movie. A great deal of the credit for the feel of this movie must include composer Russell Garcia, who set the stage for the Victorian age with lilting, Irish-sounding music of great sentimentality, and also created an electrifying, frightening score for the action sequences.  Cinematographer Paul Vogel brought the screen to dazzling life, and make-up artist William Tuttle, working on George Pal’s own design, helped to create one of the most famous monster tribes in sci-fi history, the dreaded Morlocks. The Time Machine was awarded an Oscar, for its special effects, considered groundbreaking for its time.

The story is that of H. George Wells (sound familiar?), played by one of my favorites, Rod Taylor. (Pal originally wanted Paul Scofield for the part of George, a role that doesn’t seem to be at all suitable for the great British stage actor. I believe that Rod Taylor, with his young and vigorous talent and singular mannerisms, fit the bill.) George is an inventor, a dreamer, unhappy with the world he lives in. He is preoccupied with the concept of time, and his house is filled with the most beautiful clocks you’ll ever see. George has invited a group of his friends to dinner, mostly practical businessmen, one a doctor who has little sense of humor (played by Sebastian Cabot in a wonderful harrumphing, stolid British manner), none of whom are the dreamer type, and one who is always happily soused. Then there is one of my most beloved best friend characters, a Scot named David Filby, played sweetly by Alan Young. (Sad to say, Alan Young is best remembered for his role in the TV series Mr. Ed as the owner of a talking horse.) George has not arrived for his own dinner, and his faithful housekeeper, Mrs. Watchett (Doris Lloyd) announces that George left instructions to serve dinner if he was detained. The men settle comfortably at the dining room table, when suddenly George appears in the doorway, disheveled, wounded, exhausted. He sits down and asks for food and wine. His friend the pleasant drunk pours a large glass of wine with shaking hands and unintentionally drinks it himself. Then George begins to tell his story.

George reminds the men of their dinner the week before, when he announced that he had built a machine that could move through time. The friends of course don’t believe it, and George brings out his miniature model. It is a small, exquisitely crafted little machine that looks somewhat like a sled with a sphere-shaped circle behind the traveler’s seat. George asks the doctor to give him a cigar to represent a time traveler, which he bends to fit in a seated position. He explains that if his experiment works, they will never see the machine again, as it will forever speed forward in time. He asks the doctor to use his own finger to throw the tiny switch. The little machine begins to hum, the sphere begins to twirl, and the chandelier above their heads tinkles and shakes. The humming grows louder, the sphere twirls until it blurs, then suddenly the machine is gone with a final whistling echo.

George is exhilarated with the success, but even having seen with their own eyes, his friends refuse to believe it could have happened. They leave in a group, thanking George for an interesting evening. George, angry and dismayed at their reaction, goes to his desk to write a note. Then David peeks around at him from one of the large chairs in front of the fire. “I thought I should stay,” he says. He tells George he is worried about him and wants to help. He learns that George is not interested in going into the past, but into the future. “I don’t much like the time I was born in,” George says. He thanks David for his concern, but says he would rather be alone.

After David leaves, George goes to his laboratory. The door opens, the music swells and there is the full-size Time Machine. What an exciting moment. The machine is absolutely stunning in every way. It is just like the miniature, incredibly crafted with brass engravings, velvet seat and gorgeous colors, a real thing of beauty. The camera follows George around the machine so that the audience can see its exquisite nature. The machine was designed by MGM art director Bill Ferrari, with George Pal’s direction that since he had loved his sled as a child, he wanted it to be sled-like. George climbs onto the seat, pulls the handle and begins his voyage into the future.

His journey is fascinating. He stops at different points in time, is able to see what becomes of his home and his friend, watches his city grow and sees its destruction and much more. The techniques used to show the passage of time, both slow and fast, are very clever and interesting. One of the most memorable is a store mannequin that George can see from his lab window. As time passes, the lady mannequin’s clothes change, going from chaste Victorian to modern short skirts and bathing suits. George feels a kinship with the mannequin because, like himself inside the Time Machine, she never ages. Cataclysmic events begin to occur, and George finally has to speed his way through time at a blurring rate. He stops in the 802nd century. There he finds a world that looks wonderfully evolved. Young beautiful people called the Eloi play and swim and somehow are fed without any work. (The word “eloi” means “My God” in Aramaic.) George notices that there are no old people, and also that the Eloi are strangely ignorant and uninterested in what goes on around them. Yvette Mimieux, only age 17, plays Weena, a young girl who does find interest in this strange man who has appeared from nowhere. Soon, George is to learn the true nature of the Eloi when he is made aware of the horror in that seemingly lovely world, another group that lives underground, the Morlocks.

That is as much of the story as you need to whet your appetite. I did not describe many of the exciting events of George’s journey so as to avoid spoiling everything for those who have not seen it. I would LOVE to tell the ending because it is one of my favorite movie endings, but I am restraining myself. Suffice it to say that The Time Machine does not disappoint. As an interesting note, George Pal kept the miniature time machine in his home until it was destroyed by a fire. The larger model was found years later in a thrift shop in California, covered with dust and in pieces. However, the lucky finder bought and restored it. What I wouldn’t give to have that beautiful thing – it would be the centerpiece of my living room!

George Pal hoped to make a sequel to the movie, and Rod Taylor was interested as well, but MGM rejected the idea. Perhaps that is just as well. This movie is unique and its reputation would likely only be tainted by what might be an inadequate sequel. I remember seeing a showing of The Time Machine on TV around 1995 that was hosted by Rod Taylor. He was of course 35 years older than when he played George, and with a wistful grin he said “It’s very strange to see myself so young as I find myself becoming more aged.” He loved being part of The Time Machine, and with good reason. It’s a damn good movie. (Well, if Rhett Butler can say damn, I guess I can too!)