Friday 31 July 2009

Of Mice and Men (1939)

Director: Lewis Milestone
Stars: Burgess Meredith, Betty Field, Lon Chaney Jr

Somehow it seems surprising every time I find a film from 1939 that I haven't seen, let alone one as renowned as this one, which counted among the nine classics beaten to the Best Picture Oscar by Gone with the Wind. It's a John Steinbeck story, adapted for the screen by Eugene Solow, made by Hal Roach Studios, of all things, and directed by no less a name than Lewis Milestone. It's remembered as being the one great role of Lon Chaney Jr, thankfully still keeping the Jr in his credit at this point. It always seemed somehow wrong that Lon Chaney's son should feel the need to cash in on his father's name, especialy when he could be as good as he is here, all on his own merit.

He's well paired here with Burgess Meredith. Meredith is George Milton, a quick and talkative itinerant farm worker who would do much better for himself if he wasn't forever looking after Lenny Small, Chaney's character. However Lenny, physically a giant but mentally a midget, isn't likely to do very well at anything if he was left to his own devices. The first time we see him, he's running from a lynch mob in the bizarrely named town of Weed, because he touched a little girl's dress and wouldn't let go when she screamed bloody murder.

What makes Chaney's performance so good is that we don't automatically think the worst; we're happy to believe that he's telling the truth and was merely admiring the texture of the thing, without any untoward desires in his tiny mind. In the hands of a lesser actor we'd be biased against him from this point on because we'd see him as a paedophile who just hasn't managed to do anything yet. Of course it helps that Burgess Meredith always looks like he's planning something, those beady little eyes and knowing grin that made him so awesome as the Penguin.

George and Lenny have been moving around, taking work where they can find it during the great depression but often moving on but because Lenny keeps getting into trouble. They end up at No 3 Ranch of the Soledad Land Co where the boss is a man called Jackson but it's his son that really runs the place and his son is a real piece of work. His name is Curley and he's played by Bob Steele, one of the more prolific screen cowboys, hardly surprising given how he handles a horse here. He'd already spent a couple of decades playing cowboys with every name in the book as long as the first one is Bob; he'd soon slip into some regular roles as Tucson Smith and Billy the Kid in B movie westerns.

Now Curley has a wife, a good looking one called Mae in the good looking form of Betty Field, all the more delectable because she's the only woman on the ranch. That makes her trouble even without doing anything, but Curley's a jealous soul, eager to pick a fight with anyone he can and he's happy to use her as an excuse to do so. He's a real wildcard in our story as there's no telling what he'll do and when he'll do it, but he's only one wildcard. Lenny's another, too big and strong for his own good, and he's high on Curley's hit list just for being big. Chaney was only 6'2" but he's made to look a lot bigger here through the use of deliberate camera angles.

The other obvious target among the men is the muleskinner Slim, played by the ever reliable Charles Bickford, only one of the talented actors backing up the leads. He's too bright to mess around with Mae but that doesn't stop him ending up in the same place at the same time quite a bit and thus firmly in Curley's sights. After him, the most recognisable is Noah Beery Jr, best known for his role as Jim Rockford's dad in The Rockford Files. It's a solid cast and many of those further down the credits still get their opportunity to shine in the spotlight, from Roman Bohnen as one handed Candy to Leigh Whipper as Crooks, a black ranchhand, not allowed to stay in the bunkhouse because of his colour.

The script is tight, telling us all about a point in time without ever being dry or preachy. We discover about the depression from the point of view of well defined character, often in how they talk. They're lonely enough that they talk just to hear their own voice and feel jealous of those with a friend strong enough so that they always have someone to talk to. They have hopes and dreams, always the same ones and in the great depression they didn't tend to come to anything. When those hopes become possible, nobody can keep their mouth shut. Hopes in the depression are just too important to keep secret.

It's a powerful story, from an era where Americans were writing American stories. The first great American writers were Englishmen who wrote in very English language. It was the generation of John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway who really forged the first really American stories, full of American themes and American characters. The movies added American faces and American voices to the mix. No wonder these literary classics were so popular as screen adaptations, and even people like me who grew up devouring as many books as I could find are still discovering stories like this one through those adaptations.

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