The original story was written by John Steinbeck and was set during the Great Depression. One of the interesting things about this movie is that it is not carried by a major star. Many of the actors had fine and long careers but they were not the blockbuster leading types.
The title of the movie comes from a Robert Burns’ poem titled “To a Mouse” and states – “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley.” (Or as translated “The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry.”
The Great Depression kicked off in the United States on October 29, 1929, when the stock market crashed and is now as Black Tuesday. I can’t remember the name of the play but one line states that paraphrase – “he was part of gentle rain of stock brokers that fell to earth that fall. Of course, this refers to a time when stock brokers would often commit suicide when they lost all of their client’s money rather than flee to the Caymans with sacks of stolen loot as they do now.
As a result of the Depression, one in four people were thrown out of work. Able-bodied men with no ties to hold them roamed the country looking for work, government relief, something to eat, or something to steal.
Steinbeck wrote about these people in this story and the mass migration of Okies to California in The Grapes of Wrath (1940).
The director Lewis Milestone was a real heavy hitter. Born in the Soviet Republic he immigrated to the USA as a teenager. During WWI he served in the Army as an assistant director for training films. Following the war, he worked his way up through the film business until he directed Seven Sinner (1925) for Howard Hughes. In 1930 he had his first big hit with All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). A few of his directorial achievements other than this film include a series of war films such as Edge of Darkness (1943), The Purple Heart (1944), A Walk in the Sun (1946), and Pork Chop Hill (1959). I highly recommend Pork Chop Hill (1959)a film about duty, courage, and being left out to dry. In 1960 he directed Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack in Ocean’s 11 (1960) and at least the third best Mutiny on the Bounty (1962). Marlon Brando plays a strutting peacock of Fletcher Christian in this version. He started PT 109 in 1963 but walked away from the unfinished film.
While I consider Burgess Meredith to be the bigger star in this movie I am going to talk about Lon Chaney Jr. first because I want to consider the names of the characters they played.
Lon Chaney Jr. who received third billing in this movie is the son of legendary silent star Lon Chaney Sr. who was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” for his ability to apply makeup to himself long before that became a separate art from.
In this film, Jr. played Lennie Small a mentally handicapped giant with an affinity for soft things and no understanding of his strength. I like the juxtaposing Small for large in the vein of Luke Skywalker and Dorothy Gale. Of course Luke and Dorothy are the same characters but that is a story for later.
The second major character in this movie is Burgess Meredith who played George Milton. Is that a powerful name related to government and business? I may be reaching. Meredith was a character actor that had a great long and varied career. The older crowd knows him as the Penguin from the Batman television show. A slightly younger crowd will remember him as Mick in the Rocky series. However, I like to remember him from Of Mice and Men (1939) and a light little comedy Foul Play (1978) where he was cast with Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase.
A lot of major stars wanted the lead role but these two relatively unknowns were cast. Chaney got the role over Broderick Crawford because he worked his way into the casting process reading Lennie’s lines with other actors until he was accepted. Crawford had the role on stage and I have tried to place him in the role. I just can’t do it. It’s like those posters that show Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones before they choose Harrison Ford for the role. I just can’t see it.
Bob Steele played the role of Curley. The son of the ranch boss. He has a short-man’s complex and hates anyone who is stronger or taller them him. He also has a board wife named Mae.
Steele had a 60-year long movie career that spanned from the silent era to the mid-1970s. He was never a big star but he made a living as a cowboy actor. He was in only four big hits, this movie, The Enforcer (1951), The Big Sleep (1946), and Hang ‘Em High (1968). In between, he played many smaller roles including uncredited parts.
Curley’s wife Mae was played by Betty Field. Who? That what I said. The only role I even remember her from is the women who wanted to marry the Birdman while he was in prison in the Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). I barely remember her in this role.
Roman Bohnen played the part of Candy a one-handed old hand that was looking for greener pastures to spend his last days. Bohnen has a couple of scores of movie credits. He had a small but important role in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and he was also in The Song of Bernadette (1943).
In the role of Slim was Charles Bickford. Slim is a kind, intelligent and intuitive mule skinner. Now that doesn’t mean he skins mules. A mule skinner drives a team of mules. Bickford started on the track to become a leading man but he was mauled by a lion during the filming of East of Java (1935) and spent the rest of his career as a character actor. Apparently, he was somewhat of a hellion and was constantly fighting with the studio and directors.
Leigh Whipper played the role of Crooks. Crooks was the stable hand and lived separately from the other hands due to his race. His name was a derogatory slur given to him meaning blacks steal. Whipper was born in South Carolina during reconstruction and went to Howard University where he received a law degree. Whipper was the first African-American to join the Actors’ Equity Association. He was also one of the founders of the Negro Actors Guild of America. During WWII Whipper was a member of the steering committee of Negro Division the Hollywood Victory Committee.
The final actor that will mention is uncredited in this movie and played an old hand. The only reason I mention this rodeo trick riders is because of his name – Silver Tip Baker. You just can’t beat a name like that.
The story begins with George Milton (Burgess Meredith) and Lennie Small (Lon Chaney Jr.) running from a mob to catch a train. It’s the height of the depression and they are just some of the men on the move looking for work and trying to stay out of trouble. The first night they spend by the river and we begin to see the bond between the men. George is smart and is the leader. Lennie is large and strong but is limited mentally. George tells the story of the small farm they plan to buy and he also tells Lennie to come back to this spot by the river if there is trouble.
The pair gets a job at a ranch where they meet the bosses vertically challenged son Curley (Bob Steele). Curley has an overblown Napoleon complex and immediately takes a dislike to Lennie. To make matters worse Curley has a bored young wife named Mae who he is overprotective and hateful to her. He is also extremely jealous of anyone she gives attention to.
The mule skinner Slim (Charles Bickford), has a mangy old dog that has just had puppies. He gives one to Lennie knowing he likes soft things.
When Candy (Roman Bohnen) finds out about the dream farm he asks to throw in with the duo ad for a short time it seems their dreams may come true. But it is not long until Curley attack Lennie. Lennie grabs Curley’s fist and crushes his hand ending the fight. I have tried this many times but it just doesn’t work like in the movies.
George lets down his guard and goes to town with the crew leaving Lennie alone. Lennie visits Crooks the black stable hand who is racially isolated from the other ranch hands. He also asks to join the dream farm. Curley’s wife comes in and starts flirting with the men then turns mean and threatens to have the black man lynched.
Later Lennie is petting his puppy and kills it because he doesn’t know his own strength. Mae shows up and opens up to Lennie about her dreams while Lennie rambles on about the dream farm. They really are in two separate worlds. Then Mae comes up with the brilliant idea to let him stroke her hair because he likes soft things. She already knows about the puppy so come on. Of course, Lennie goes to work on the hair like the Yeti in a Bugs Bunny cartoon and Mae begins to scream. Lennie gently tries to quite her and snaps her neck. Lennie heads for the rendezvous while the hands begin to form a mob. George gets a gun and beats the mob to where Lennie is waiting. George has Lennie look out over the river and he tells him the story of the dream farm and talks about the rabbits. He slowly pulls the gun and kills Lennie while he is happy rather than let he be killed or thrown in jail. When the mob arrives only Slim realizes what has happened as George is led away by the sheriff.
Steinbeck said this story is based on a pitchfork murder that he saw while working the fields. He also said that Mae was only added as a foil for Lennie and that is why she was mostly called Curley’s wife.
This movie was nominated for 4 Oscars including Best Picture but did not win any. In a side note, every time Charles Bickford, who played Slim was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar his co-stars won the best actress Oscar. This happened three times.
This movie has a lot of depth that I did not go into very deeply. It is a study on how men bond and separate themselves by their actions. It is also a commentary and the mistreatment of people who are different that others. But I think the most important point of this movies is that you have to carry your own dreams. if you try to carry the dreams of other the weight will be too much and will crush you both.
This movie was remade in 1992 with Gary Sinise as George and John Malkovich as Lennie. They are both fine actors but I could never take Malkovich as the giant with crushing strength. The book Of Mice and Men is commonly placed on the banned list for schools by narrow-minded bigots that don’t have the gray matter to understand what is going on in the text.
The summary for this movie was very hard as it is such a fine and important film it’s hard to reduce to a short summary but I think I got it.
World-Famous Short Summary: Two itinerant workers take work at a California farm run by a psychotic runt and his wife who is prone to make bad choices. Things end badly for the workers.
“Mice, Men, and Mr. Steinbeck”. The New York Times: 7. 1937-12-05.
The New York Public Library Archives & Manuscripts. “Leigh Rollin Whipper papers”. Retrieved 5 October 2013.
Watts, Jill, Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood, 2006, p. 209.
Misspent youth watching late night reruns of classic movies
Of course, this is the first version of the movie. In 1992, a credible version Of Mice and Men was made with Gary Sinise and John Malkovich as George and Linnie.
And now it seems that a new version Of Mice and Men is coming out in 2015. The film will have James Franco and Chris O’Dowd.
Of Mice and Men (1939)
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