"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.


  1. I also like the original the best. 1939 was truly a remarkable year for movies. Most of my favorite films come from that year.

  2. Becky, I have not seen this film. Thank you for your wonderful review. 1939. Wow! What a great year for movies!

  3. This is an incredibly sad story but is one of the very best. I think my favorite adaptation is Gary Sinise's version. Superbly directed and acted. John Malkovich is wonderful, and I've always thought that Sinise was and still is an underrated actor. The version with Blake & Quaid is a little disappointing. Your guess of Quaid's performance is spot on, as he doesn't quite make a sympathetic Lenny. I like Robert Blake, and he's okay but not exceptional.

    Anyway, great and thoughtful write-up, Becky, and quite a fun read.

  4. i do not know why this wonderful adaptation of a classic novel does not receive more respect and admiration ...both MEREDITH & CHANEY are superb...any remake could NEVER equal the dramatic heights of this version..i have seen it many times and it remains a favorite..thanx BECKY for doing service to an enduring AND endearing film!!!

  5. It's great to hear from you all. Bob, 1939 was indeed a unique year for American film. Dawn, you have just got to see this movie. Sark, I liked Sinise's version very much, and I agree that I don't understand why Sinise has been under-utilized as an actor. Malkovich was so good too. Doctor, you feel about this 1939 treatment of Steinbeck's great novel just as I do. I don't exactly know why it isn't as famous as it should be -- perhaps because it came out during that year and over time got a little lost in the shuffle. This is one of the very few movies who did absolute justice to the original novel, and it was superb.

  6. Becks, I hadn't thought about this movie in a long time; I really enjoyed your review. I thought Lon was good as Lenny, but I too prefer Malkovich's performancae. Burgess Meredith was is the standout for me in the 1939 version. When I first saw this film as a teen, I only knew him as The Penguin from TV's BATMAN series.

  7. Rick, thanks for coming by and commenting on my article. You and Sark are in sync about the Sinise version. As I said, I too thought it was excellent. But the original has, for me, more magic. John Malkovich was wonderful, but Lon Chaney's Lenny made my heart ache more. Burgess Meredith was indeed a stand-out as George. What a story!

  8. just saw the original again last night...still moving..great attention to the narration and language of the novel!!!

  9. I watched it last night too. It was on at 2:15 a.m. and I deliberately stayed up just to see it. I know I could have DVR'd it, but sometimes there is just something better about catching it when it's one and watching it.

  10. A typical Steinbeck story of humanity with all it's struggles. Really good article!

  11. I thought Lew Ayres as Candy did a marvelous job in the 1992 version. It broke my heart when they shot his dog because it was too old and smelly. And Candy thinking why they wouldn't just do the same to him. That was so sad!!! I'll have to netflix the original one. I love Burgess Meredith.