Saturday, February 22, 2014

Of Mice and Men (1939, 1992)

Director: Lewis Milestone, Gary Sinise              Writer: John Steinbeck
Film Score: Aaron Copeland, Mark Isham          Cinematography: Norbert Brodine, Kenneth MacMillan
Starring: Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney Jr., Gary Sinise and John Malcovich

Lewis Milestone’s production of John Steinbeck’s best selling novel Of Mice and Men had the misfortune of being produced in 1939, a year that was so full of great films that there was very little elbow room at the Oscars that year. Had it been made a year earlier it’s likely it would have won several awards, possibly even best picture. Still, it earned four nominations including best picture and best score for Aaron Copeland’s music. The story of two itinerant farm workers during the Depression is one of the greatest works of American literature. It’s a small novel, like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, but is no less powerful for it’s size. In fact, the characters of Lennie and George have become cultural icons that, though diminished over time, still resonate large in the popular culture of the past and Steinbeck’s novel has inspired four film adaptations and countless stage productions.

The story begins with two men on the run, Burgess Meredith as George, and Lon Chaney Jr. as Lennie. They make their way to a ranch where they both begin a new job, but the owner’s son, Bob Steele, is a small hothead who likes to fight. He immediately takes a dislike to Lennie, believing he can best him and feel better about himself in the process. One big problem on the ranch, however, is Steele’s wife, Betty Field. Lonely for any kind of company, she hangs out with the farm hands and winds up driving Steele insane with jealousy. Meanwhile Chaney, as the mentally disabled giant, is fond of petting soft things, like the puppy George gets him or the rabbits that they’ll have on their own farm some day. The two befriend an old cripple, Roman Bohnen, who has a lot of money saved up from his disability payments, and together they plan to get their own farm as soon as George can set it up with the owners of some land he knows. But fate is not kind to the plans of ordinary men, and this time there’s nowhere to run to.

The film is most notable for launching the career of Lon Chaney Jr., as well as typecasting him. It is a brilliant performance, one he perfected in the company of the West Coast theater production. He lobbied for the part with director Lewis Milestone and won the role in the film. It’s easy to see why. He elicits pathos for a character that no one has been able to match. Other performers have brought their own interpretation to the role but Chaney had something no other actor could duplicate. But it came with a price, and he found himself mired in cheap horror films for the rest of his career. Burgess Meredith is a perfect partner for Chaney, and though the rest of the cast is average, the aggregate is very good. Milestone was on his downward slide by now, but still does a nice job. And with Aaron Copeland’s quintessential American film score Of Mice and Men deserves its place as a Hollywood classic.

As good as the 1939 version is, however, the quintessential version is easily Gary Sinise’s adaptation from 1992. Though Horton Foote ostensibly “wrote” the screenplay, it is almost word for word from Steinbeck’s novel. And where the ’39 film condensed the first half of the story, this one sticks with Steinbeck’s original staging as well. There was an earlier version with Robert Blake and Randy Quaid from 1981, but it strayed so far from Steinbeck’s text that this is easily the better of the two. Sinese has a subtle touch as a director and makes a perfectly introspective George and makes believable the devotion he demonstrates toward Lennie. Malkovich’s Lennie is ultra realistic and the slower unfolding of the story makes the empathy that much greater. It’s a brilliant performance, but in a different way than Chaney.

The great Ray Walston plays the cripple Candy and adds the kind of extreme confidence that Roman Bohnen can’t even approach. Casey Siemaszko, as Curly the ranch owner’s son, is primarily a television actor but has done quite a few small roles in features in between. The muleskinner Slim is played by John Terry, who is much more appropriate for the role than Charles Bickford in the original. But it’s Sherilyn Fenn who transforms the role of Curly’s wife from the nagging trailer trash blonde of the original to a dark-haired woman-child who is so lonely that she doesn’t realize the kind of danger she is putting the men, and herself, in just by talking to them. The pages of Steinbeck’s novel come alive in the hands of Sinese and company, and make this Of Mice and Men a treasure to match Steinbeck’s novel.

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