Of Mice and Men (Lewis Milestone, 1939)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Of Mice and Men.

criterion logoJohn Steinbeck’s acclaimed novel was just two years old when director Lewis Milestone adapted it for the screen, painting a bold, vivid picture of men searching for a safe haven from the cruelties of the Great Depression.  Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr. play George and Lennie, a pair of itinerant farm hands in California’s Salinas Valley who dream of someday having a modest ranch of their own, free from the poverty of alienation and loneliness.  Their plans are consistently complicated by the dangerous misunderstandings caused by the hulkling, childlike Lennie, and when his companion’s knack for trouble goes too far, the limits of George’s loyalty and kindness to his friend are tested.  A critical success at its release, admired by Steinbeck himself, and nominated for multiple Academy awards including Best Picture, Of Mice and Men is another classic from Hollywood’s greatest year – 1939.

Disc Features:

  • New sepia-toned, digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • The Forgotten Village (1941), Herbert Kline and Alexander Hamid’s ethnofiction documenting the clash of traditional living and modernization in a Mexican village, written by John Steinbeck and narrated by Burgess Meredith
  • John Steinbeck’s acceptance speech for his 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature
  • Of Mice and Men (1992, 115 minutes), a new digital transfer of Gary Sinise’s adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel with deleted scenes, audio commentaries, trailer, and screen and make-up tests
  • Plus: A booklet featuring new essays by Steinbeck scholar Jackson J. Benson, actor and filmmaker Gary Sinise, and filmmaker John Sayles

Despite an underwhelming box office, Lewis Milestone’s Of Mice and Men (1939) was a critical success and the film garnered four Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Sound Recording (Elmer A. Raguse), Best Musical Score (Aaron Copland), and Best Original Score (Aaron Copland).  While this achievement might sound reasonably impressive alone, it’s downright stellar when one considers that the film received these recognitions in 1939, Hollywood’s greatest year.  Of Mice and Men‘s competitors for Best Picture were The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming), Stagecoach (John Ford), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (Sam Wood), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra), Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding), Love Affair (Leo McCarey), Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch), Wuthering Heights (William Wyler), and the winner, Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming).  Time has been kind to a number of these nominees as many have become canonical examples of classical Hollywood cinema at its finest, but Of Mice and Men has lagged in comparison, only having been rediscovered over the last few decades.  A sepia-toned version, restored with the assistance of the Film Foundation, has been making the rounds at art cinemas and rep theatres over the last decade or so, but only a bare-bones DVD edition of Of Mice and Men graces hard media.  We’re big fans of John Steinbeck here at MMC! and its time for the Criterion Collection to make room for one of America’s greatest authors with an edition of Of Mice and Men that properly hails the film as a true classic of Hollywood cinema.

Of Mice and Men is, of course, about a pair of migrant field workers in Depression-era California.  George, a canny bindlestiff, travels with his devoted companion Lennie, a large man with a child’s mind and a knack for misunderstandings caused by his attraction to soft things and his inability to control his immense strength when panicked.  Fleeing such an incident, George and Lennie get on at a ranch and make fast friends, despite (or because of) raising the ire of the boss’s son Curley, as small man with an unhappy wife and an inferiority complex.  Plans get made with an old, crippled farm hand named Candy to raise enough cash to buy a small farm George knows of and live off “the fatta the land,” but an innocent meeting between Lennie and Curley’s wife Mae leaves the woman dead and Lennie again on the run.  Despondent at his situation and aware that he can no longer protect his friend, George finds Lennie ahead of the lynch mob and mercifully kills Lennie in a heartrending conclusion.

Steinbeck, so often ambivalent to adaptations of his work and having had little to do with the successful adaptation of Of Mice and Men to the stage in 1937 (much to the chagrin of play’s producer), approved of Milestone’s film most of all.  When asked to provide a blurb in support of the film, the author wrote:

The English language is very strange and every once in a while we lose a word that used to be very popular in usage.  I wonder whatever happened to the word ‘good’?  Everything is sensational, stupendous, tremendous, and whatnot, but whatever happened to the word ‘good’?  So all I have to say about the picture is that it is good.

Milestone used that comment in the promotion of Of Mice and Men and Steinbeck was right – Of Mice and Men is good.  Good not merely in the sense that it is well-acted, well-scored, and well-designed (which it is – contemporary critics who take umbrage at the film’s broad performances and overt score should reconsider the film as representative of its era), but good in the manner that it preserves Steinbeck’s moral voice for humanity, compassion, and brotherhood.  Of Mice and Men has that intrinsic quality of a Steinbeck work – a capacity to inspire hope and possibility even when tragedy is inevitable.  Lon Chaney Jr.’s Lennie is the film’s greatest legacy, having been immortalized to generations of kids by Chuck Jones as the Looney Tunes character Hugo the Abominable Snowman.  That may sound minimizing, slighting his performance as folly for children’s entertainment, and there is little subtlety in Lenny’s depiction, but is also a testament to the innocence, devotion, and enthusiasm Chaney Jr. is able to encapsulate in his time on screen.  Lennie’s one-note likability plays well against the sometimes irascible nature of Burgess Meredith’s George, becoming a soft-spot in his hard, guarded nature.  Goodwill is infectious in Steinbeck’s worlds, even if it doesn’t extend as far as it ought to or becomes a source of its own undoing, and Charles Bickford (Slim), Roman Bohnen (Candy), and Leigh Whipper (Crooks) all provide beautiful supporting performances as men struggling to maintain their fair share and ease a little bit of their load.  Betty Field’s performance as Mae, the isolated and frustrated wife of the boss’s son, is marvelous in her blend of innocence, sexuality, scorn, and piteousness.  It’s an easy character to make unsympathetically selfish and manipulative, but Field holds her performance above such pitfalls and, in doing so, offers Mae her own tragic arc.

Of Mice and Men Title ScreenThere is a lot that’s interesting in the archaeology of the film’s production.  Director Lewis Milestone took on the project to fulfill a contractual obligation to producer Hal Roach as part of a lawsuit’s settlement.  Steinbeck, for his part, had to be pressed by Milestone and screenwriter Eugene Solow to actively participate in the film’s script and he drove Milestone around the Salinas Valley to location scout, a process that Milestone cut short when Steinbeck confided to him that they couldn’t stop to look at any of the ranches for fear of getting his “ass [shot] full of rock salt.”  The film’s co-leads give arguably the best performances of their careers and Milestone’s blending of on-location and sound stage shooting is excellent.  The delayed reveal of the film’s title was an unusual approach for the time and its appearance in chalk on the side of a moving box car is inspired.  Burgess Meredith noted that the film was a savior to him, providing him with a demanding role at a time when his marital breakdown and his escape to Germany for some pre-War hedonism were putting both his health and his talent at risk.  Steinbeck and Meredith (or Buzzy) became lifelong friends following the film, with Steinbeck writing The Moon is Down and Bombs Away at Meredith’s New York home and Meredith losing a copy of an unpublished play of Steinbeck’s, The Last Joan, to which Buzzy had given the title and concept.

Dana TanamachiThat title screen, written in chalk, is Of Mice and Men‘s greatest flourish.  It blends crude printing and lush cursive on the same screen, celebrating these contrasts.  The medium is highly textural, evoking so many concepts at work in the story – the transient and temporary nature of things, the value in having something personal, sensorial, and handmade, the importance of community and shared/public experiences, the beauty of simple, inexpensive things.  Chalkboard art is very trendy now and a riff on this title screen for the entirety of the packaging (à la Criterion’s release of an inky Le Corbeau) would be quite enticing.  That means going to the queen of chalk, Dana Tanamachi, for a cover treatment.

Credits:  Much of the credit for this post is owed to Jackson J. Benson’s John Steinbeck, Writer: A Biography, an excellent resource to those interested in the author, and so it only made sense to include Benson as an essay contributor.  The Forgotten Village is an ethnofictional drama filmed in documentary style and written by Steinbeck, telling the story of a remote Mexican peasant village suffering from a malady but resistant to the intervention of a scientific remedy.  The author was generally satisfied with the film, even if he wasn’t overjoyed, and it has the benefit of being narrated by his close friend Burgess Meredith.  Gary Sinise’s 1992 adaptation of Of Mice and Men is also highly regarded and seemed a welcome addition to the package.  Its special features are taken from past DVD editions released by MGM.  An essay by Sinise on the earlier adaptation would be interesting, while John Sayles seemed qualified given his political views and his 1998 receipt of the Steinbeck award.

One thought on “Of Mice and Men (Lewis Milestone, 1939)

  1. Dan O'Hara July 13, 2016 / 7:32 pm

    One more addition I would love to see:

    An interview with Gilbert Gottfried discussing the career of Lon Chaney Jr.

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