Not familiar with John Steinbeck’s classic novel? Well to be honest I’ve never read it either but I am a fan of the 1939 version caught on camera by Oscar winning director Lewis Milestone that gave eventual horror icon Lon Chaney Jr. his most famous role outside of the genre most film buffs associate him with.
Having starred in his first film in 1936 this Best Picture nominee is also an early film in the career of the beloved Burgess Meredith who plays the lead, George Milton, who along with Chaney as Lennie Small are workers roaming the farmlands during the Great Depression and looking to make ends meet. The film will begin with them on the run from what appears to be a lynch mob that they’ll leave in the dust after hopping a freight with a bunch of hobos.
“Just like a kid ain’t he.”
What we’re to learn is that the giant sized Chaney has not grown up mentally after sustaining a head injury as a child. Meredith is his cousin who has morphed into both a caretaker and a father figure to Chaney. He’s had a hard time keeping Chaney in line who has a penchant for touching and petting pretty things from his beloved rabbits to silk and satin …
The next stop the pair make is where the balance of the film will play out at a ranch owned by Oscar O’Shea and his hot headed son played by Bob Steele. Steele has a trophy wife played by Betty Field and has a short fuse with anyone who comes near her or even looks in her direction. On top of that his short stature is a sore spot and he decides that the large sized Chaney is an easy target for picking on.
It’s also on the ranch that we’ll meet two key figures in our story. Charles Bickford stars as a straight up foreman that men look up to. One who won’t knuckle under to any man let alone the bully Steele. Bickford befriends Meredith and by extension Chaney. Then there’s Roman Bohnen as Candy, an old timer who has lost a hand and is worried he’ll be cast aside in favor of a younger, stronger worker. On top of that he’s got an old dog for a pal who is himself nearing the end of his lifespan.
Yeah I’m a dog lover who is known to cry at the drop of a hat where animals and especially dogs are concerned and there is a cruel scene to come when Bohnen gives in to peer pressure to put his best friend down. Even Bickford who Bohnen respects gives him the nod to let his pal go. Bickford has a bunch of pups he’s looking to find homes for and gives one to Bohnen as well as Chaney and even Steel’s wife Betty which only serves to create more tension in our story.
That doesn’t sit well with Steele who is a real son of a bitch in this film. A character I for one want to see take a pounding and when he pushes Chaney to the limit that’s exactly what he’ll get in a rage filled crushing of his ego.
I’m not going to go much farther in plot details for those that might never have read the book or seen one of the three official screen adaptations of the Steinbeck novel I’m familiar with. The other two being a 1980 telefilm starring Robert Blake and Randy Quaid and a popular 1992 release with Gary Sinise and John Malkovich in the leading roles.
For a film made in 1939 there’s a maturity that shines in it’s delivery. A lot of that has to do with the way a black character is handled. Played by Leigh Whipper, it’s a fully fleshed out role as opposed to a “yes sir, no sir” portrait with the accompanying stereotypical nervous twitches or comedy relief often associated with a black actor during this era of Hollywood. Whipper is a lonely old timer on the farm living by himself in segregation from the others. Racism isn’t a factor with the innocent minded Chaney when the two at first clash on screen only to find company with one another while the ranch hands are off to town on a Saturday night.
Chaney has been lauded for years thanks to his turn here as Lennie and would revisit his old friend on occasion in later performances over the next few decades. Aside from Lon’s star making performance which I think may be considered dated by today’s first time viewers and a target for parody (see Warner Brothers cartoons) it’s Meredith and Bohnen who stand out. Bohnen’s career was a short one as he passed away in 1949 but his work here is heartbreaking as a man who has been bullied into letting his friend go before he’s ready to make that decision.
Not giving anything away intentionally, Meredith will himself have to make a similar decision but on his own terms. Fame can be an everlasting thing and here we are 80 years after the making of this film that starred two relatively unknown actors at the time who are today very identifiable to both young and old. Sure Lon needs to be wearing his Lawrence Talbot make up but I think most anyone can point at him and firmly claim he’s a werewolf. As for Meredith, he got a lot of mileage out of Mickey in Sly Stallone’s Rocky saga and if that isn’t enough to get him recognized there’s always the Penguin.
Beautifully shot with a timeless score that has an honesty about it for the era by composer Aaron Copland, Of Mice and Men should be on your watchlist if you haven’t gotten to it just yet. It’s a rewarding film from Milestone and producer Hal Roach where everyone is a dreamer. It also has the likable long time character player Noah Beery Jr. in a secondary role and according to the IMDB an unbilled youngster by the name of Budd Boetticher as a second unit horse wrangler. Don’t know Budd? Look him up. I can’t do all the work.
All three versions of the novel I’ve spoken of are available on DVD if you’re looking to check them out but do me a favor and start with this one will yah.