Of Mice and Men (1939)

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  • directed by Lewis Milestone
  • starring Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney Jr., Betty Field, Roman Bohnen, Bob Steele, Charles Bickford, Leigh Whipper
  • George and Lennie work as hands on a ranch and dream of one day owning one for themselves.

“Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land. It’s just in their head.”

Few stories get to me like the bleak one of Lennie and George from Of Mice and Men. It’s always been one of my favorite books, covered in a cynical worldview much like my own. The film opens with Lennie and George boarding a train with the well-known “…best-laid plans,” quote scrawled on the door in what looked like chalk, which was funny to me because the entire production, especially the script by Eugene Solow, is perhaps the best possible adaptation of a Steinbeck story that is now rightfully a classroom staple. When better to learn about the evasiveness and oftentimes near-invisibility of The American Dream than prior to striking out on your own path in life?

Eugene Solow’s script held on to all of the themes of the book and the film felt like it was picking at those same scabs of discontentment and loneliness for its entire runtime until fate poses its interruption in the end. The entire cast was able to deliver this material like nobody else could. It was a film adaptation completely living up to the standards of its source material including casting, the dusty and isolated sets, Solow’s writing choices, and director Milestone, who for the most part stepped to the side and captured all of these assets simply and beautifully. Milestone’s best work for me were the wise choices he made in the death scenes of Mae and Lennie, softening the horror of these moments slightly, but keeping the emotional impact intact.

Many people point to the role of Mickey in Rocky as Meredith’s shining moment on screen, and funny enough there’s a scene in this where he is full-on Mickey as he coaches Lennie out of a fistfight with Curly (Stallone must have seen this prior to casting him). I’ve always loved the guy, though, for his work in the Batman series, as well as my favorite Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough At Last.” He was just that perfect actor that disappeared into roles and perfected the type of everyman that always seemed irritated by what’s being dealt to him in life. There’s very little surprise in George’s reaction when he finds Curly’s wife lifeless on the stable floor, he knows by now the price of leaving Lennie unsupervised, but Meredith lets little flashes of deep emotion force itself out during that scene all the way through to the even more emotional ending. He never blinks and he could talk all he wants about how his friend was a nuisance and how much easier it all would be without him, but to be alone and face the demise of their dream by his lonesome is something I don’t think he quite yet grasped by the end of it. I was wrongly worried about Lon Chaney Jr.’s take on Lennie Small due to his history of over-the-top horror roles and the fact that Lennie is a character laden with major traps for that type of actor. Chaney, though, found the perfect balance, spilling with enthusiasm, obsessed with animals whenever they were near, and never annoying. Sometimes I feel like Steinbeck intended on the reader being as taxed with the presence of Lennie as George was, but Chaney was able to convey the complexities of the character without just hitting the same notes over and over.

When we meet Lenny and George, they’ve already struck out at least once yet still cling to the dream. Once they arrive at the ranch we then see that everyone, from Mae to Candy to Crooks, has the same grand desires and plans to escape the current state of things. They talk about their dreams and aspirations like it’s some kind of magical bus, scheduled to arrive at the end of the month and save them from this temporary period of exhaustion and dark nothingness. Little do they know that it is not and never was up to them. Again, I think it’s a way better lesson and I much prefer Steinbeck’s pessimistic views than those from the school of “if you believe it, you can achieve it.”

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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