Sunday, November 23, 2014
OF MICE AND MEN (1939)
(December 1939, U.S.)
During my middle school and high school years, I was not exactly what you'd call an enthusiastic reader of the required material given to us in English class. However, every once in a while, one of the required books would catch my attention long enough to warrant my full intention to read the entire book rather than simply skim through it just enough to enable me to pass the inevitable quiz or test on the material (that's if I passed!). John Steinbeck's OF MICE AND MEN did not impose a great demand on my reading time as it was a simple enough story contained in the limited size of a novella. Needless to say, I enjoyed the book and didn't get the opportunity to experience a screen adaptation until Gary Sinise's remake version in 1992. The original version of 1939 with Burgess Meredith as George Milton and Lon Chaney Jr. as Lennie Small, I didn't get to see until I became a subscriber and avid fan of Turner Classic Movies. And although the remake is a credible version, the classic black and white film manages to capture the experience and emotion of the Great Depression much better, in my opinion. Perhaps it's because that back in 1939, the Depression was not yet history.
Again, this is a simple story of two simple California migrant field workers just trying to survive during a time of economic turmoil. George is a quick-witted and somewhat intelligent man, while Lennie is a mentally-disabled large man of great size and strength. This is why he makes a great field worker in that he simply (I am using that word a lot, aren't I?) does what he's told to do. This is also why he needs constant tending, so to say, by George to make sure he doesn't get into trouble, which judging by the film's opening, has happened already at another job location, which is why when we first meet these two men, they're running for their lives in a forest from angry men with shotguns. So immediately, the film is about second chances and the hopes of simple-minded men who only want a chance at a better life for themselves. In a world where working another man's ranch and farmland often means harsh and cruel treatment by the bosses, it's no wonder a simple (there it is again!) dream is for one to get enough money together to buy their own house on their own farm and, as George and Lennie put it, "live off the fat of the land". For George, who's in charge of not only the dreaming, but the money, too, this requires the discipline of not blowing his wages in town on a Saturday night where the temptation of liquor and women (who also want liquor) exist. George is focused and committed, but even that can be difficult when you're constantly keeping your eye on a mentally-limited dolt like Lennie.
Even as women are a likely threat outside the ranch life, the existence of Mae (played by Betty Field) as the ranch boss' son's wife is a constant threat for not only her beauty and loneliness, but also for the jealous rage of her husband Curley (played by Bob Steele) who's constant battle in life is making sure his wife isn't speaking with or even looking at any of the other ranch hands rather than actually doing his job to tend the ranch. Still, he's the boss' son and his jealous rages can get a man fired in this place. Curley, as a secondary character, is a loathsome man who we can't wait to see get his just dues in life when he pushes someone too far. Our hopes and dreams for that fantasy come true when Lennie, under orders from George, crushes Curley's hand in self-defense after Curley repeatedly hits him for laughing at a joke at Curley's expense. It's also important to note that Curley simply hates large men in general because he himself is a short man. This particular sequence is also very noteworthy in the fact that George is played by Burgess Meredith. What do I mean by that? Watch carefully the moment that George comes up alongside Lennie's face as he's being repeatedly hit by Curley and finally tells him to fight back. Those of my generation who grew up with ROCKY films will immediately recall with great reminiscence the images of Meredith's character Mickey and his ongoing demands to Rocky Balboa to get in the ring and crush his opponent. Perhaps Sylvester Stallone was greatly inspired by this sequence in OF MICE AND MEN when casting for Mickey. How could he not be?
One question that has repeatedly occupied my mind at the end of the film is whether or not the ultimate dream does come true in the end? Shortly before Lennie gets into trouble again by accidentally killing Mae, we see George mailing a cash deposit for the house and farm he has in mind. The dream is set in motion up until Lennie is once again a scared fugitive from angry men with shotguns. It's George who finally puts Lennie out of his misery and also spares him the lynching he'd likely get from this angry mob. Lennie is dead now and George is free of the burden as his keeper. Will George eventually go on to achieve his dream of ownership and independence? We're never told and I don't rightly know if John Steinbeck ever knew himself. The film's ending is not a happy one, but in a world where optimism is sometimes very difficult, it would be nice to consider the dream's possibilities.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Mae: "Who busted your hand, Curley?"
Curley: "I told ya, I got it caught in a machine!"
Mae: "I saw that machine last night!"
Curley: "They told ya?"
Mae: "Why didn't you tell your old man, so he could can him?"
Curley: "The double crossin'...!"
Mae: "I'll tell you why! Cause you were scared, if you'd talk, they'll talk too! You were scared you'd get the horse laugh, like I'm giving ya now! Just a punk with a crippled hand!"
Curley: "I ain't even gonna slug ya! I'm going upstairs and pack your junk! You're gettin' out of here! You and me are through!"