I'd like to spank the Academy

Of Mice and Men (1939)

1939 Of mice and men - La fuerza bruta (ing) 03Directed by Lewis Milestone

I read the book Of Mice and Men when I was a junior in high school. I didn’t care for it much; I couldn’t figure out how John Steinbeck could fit so much misery into such a short book. And I haven’t read it since, but watching this movie made me want to, because even though the movie Of Mice and Men is still sad due to the utter hopelessness of these men’s lives, the fact that someone out there understands their situation and dreams and feelings gives hope back to those who feel downtrodden by life. I’m not a Depression-era drifter, but this movie gave me some hope. It made me realize that I am not alone in what I want out of life. That’s a very powerful thing for a work of art to do.

So what’s the story? During the Depression, friends George and Lennie go from ranch to ranch looking for work. George is a small guy, but he’s smart. Lennie is hulking giant; he’s mentally slow, but he works hard and is very kind-hearted, especially towards small animals. George and Lennie have a dream of having their own small place where they can farm for themselves and do what they want to do when they want to do it. They are starting work on a new ranch. Curly, the ranch owner’s proud, jealous son, has a wife, Mae, whom he constantly suspects of cheating. Being the only woman on the ranch is lonely for her, but it’s even worse because none of the ranch hands will talk to her because Curly doesn’t like it when they do. The tensions on the ranch are about to explode and take away George and Lennie’s dreams.

The Good: This movie was exceptionally well-cast. Lon Chaney, Jr. plays Lennie and does a wonderful job of playing a kind man who truly doesn’t understand his own strength. His performance is powerful, and I’m really trying to decide why he didn’t get nominated for an Oscar for it. Burgess Meredith plays George very well. He gives a very good performance of a man torn between his love and loyalty to a friend and his frustration when that friend makes mistakes that pull them both down. Betty Field, who plays Mae, also does a good job. Mae is kind of crass and low-class, but she’s also so lonely. Her desire to really live life is just bursting out of her. I felt much sorrier for her than I remember feeling when I read the book. The rest of the cast is good, too. The hands are especially sympathetic. I don’t know how they got such perfect people for every role, but it happened.

I noticed the music from the beginning. I kept thinking it sounded more symphonic, more complex somehow than a typical 1930s movie score. I found out that Aaron Copland wrote the music, and it suddenly made sense. It was beautiful music, and it didn’t overwhelm the movie like some scores did in the 1930s. It fit the movie just perfectly.

The Bad: I can’t exactly put my finger on just why I felt this way, but I feel like it dragged a bit in some places. I can’t really think of a boring scene, but the pacing was off somehow. Maybe it’s because when I watched it, my mind wasn’t the sharpest it’s ever been. So yeah. Take that comment with a grain of salt. Or better yet, watch the movie and tell me in the comments if I was right or wrong!

The Ugly: This is not a happy story. It’s the story of men living on the fringes of society, wanting no more than the freedom to make their own decisions about life, but who can’t rise above where their circumstances have placed them. The ending is heart-wrenching, because John Steinbeck understood life, and life is not easy.

Oscars Won: None.

Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best sound, recording; best music, scoring; best music, original score.

Random Fact: This movie was adapted from the play that was based on the book. Weird, huh?

Comments on: "Of Mice and Men (1939)" (11)

  1. THE SCORE IS BY AARON COPLAND? You probably could have led with that. I had no idea he ever scored a film, but I love the pairing of The Great American Composer with The Great American Novelist.

    I’ve never wanted to watch “The Grapes of Wrath” or “East of Eden” because I don’t think its possible to turn either of those epics into a genuinely good film. There are too many characters and side stories and philosophical wanderings to fit into three hours. Plus, half of the beauty of Steinbeck’s novels is the way he expresses his ideas, not just the plot or ideas themselves. The man does wonders with words.

    But I can TOTALLY see this one working, and you’ve convinced me to watch it. “Of Mice and Men” is basically a novella anyway, and it’s told from the point of view of one pair of people (rather than two separate families over several generations, or alternating between one extended family and an entire displaced people), and from what I remember it’s less concerned with the beauty of words and more concerned with telling a story.

    I’m glad they were all cast well, and that Mae is sympathetic. I didn’t feel much sympathy for her the first time I read this, either (middle school), but now that I reflect on her situation it’s kind of hard not to feel like she’s just as trapped as George and Lennie–just with more stability. It’s kind of weird to picture the Wolfman as slow/sweet Lennie!

    In other John Steinbeck movie news, did you know they’re making a new “East of Eden” and Jennifer Lawrence with be playing Cathy? I may be on the “Jennifer Lawrence can do no wrong” wagon, but I think that is a tragic miscast, if only physically. Cathy’s all tiny sharpness (heart-shaped face with pointed chin, slanted eyes, tiny nose and lips, underdeveloped body). (Come to think of it, this is one role I think Kristen Stewart would play brilliantly. Never thought I’d say that!) I’m hesitant about the film, but definitely curious to see who they cast as the menfolk.

    On the plus side, I guess, they’re going to split it into two movies. Which makes sense, given that it’s a modern biblical epic featuring three generations of two families.

    But why? WHY?

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    • Do you think Kristen Stewart would play it well, or do you just think she’s right physically? Because those are two very different things, and of the two, playing the part well is more important in my opinion.

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  2. While I don’t know how good Kristen Stewart’s acting range is, I think she could probably ‘get’ Cathy. I’ve only ever seen her play bland damsels-in-distress, but I think that might be the writers’ fault and not KS’s. (Good luck humanizing Bella Swan, right?)

    Cathy is a sociopath who can’t feel or understand love/goodness. She’s detatched from society, pretty sure she’s smarter than everyone else (probably true), but is also filled with irrational rage because she sees she’s missing something that everyone else has (even though she’s convinced herself it makes her less weak than everyone else).

    Kristen Stewart seems fairly angry all the time and she’s definitely set herself apart from the traditional Hollywood crowd. I’d be interested to see whether she’s capable of playing all of Cathy’s characters, since Cathy herself is acting all the time (except when she’s drunk).

    And she really does look right. She just needs to be blonde.

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  3. Also, every so often there are characters whose appearance is a huge part of their character. (I still think casting Keira Knightly as Anna Karenina was a travesty.) So much of Cathy’s actions are the result of being objectified as a pretty child and her manipulation of others’ reactions to her perpetually-childlike (and very slim/sharp) face and body. Jennifer Lawrence isn’t exactly old, but she doesn’t look like a little girl. Her face and body are both very full. She could be adorably sweet, maybe, but Cathy never goes for adorability when she plays ‘sweet.’ I don’t know. I’m probably not making a ton of sense.

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  4. Jonathan said:

    Okay….

    All that aside (I can’t believe that the Queen Empress is nominating Kristen Stewart to play anything), I noticed that your review didn’t compare this movie (which admittedly I haven’t seen) with the Gary Sinise film. Is that because such a comparison is outside the scope of your weblog, or because such a comparison is not possible?

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    • I have to admit I have never seen the version of Of Mice and Men with Gary Sinise. And watching five movies a week is taking so much time that although I would love to compare and contrast and stuff, I just don’t have time. Unless someone decides to bankroll me, that is, in which case I could quit my day job and just review movies. 🙂

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  5. Jon–oh, I know. I can hardly believe it myself. (On the other hand, I’ve only left the house twice in the past few weeks–I’m probably slowly going crazy.)(Which would also explain my unnecessarily verbose responses to movie reviews.)

    There are two Stagecoach movies? Is the one you’ve seen any good?

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  6. Jonathan said:

    Do you mean Of Mice and Men? Yes, there’s the one that The Grouch just reviewed (and that I’ve never seen), and a 1992 version with Gary Sinise as George (and who also directed) and John Malkovich as Lenny.

    I could write a review about it, but it would closely mirror the review here. The differences I can think of: Copland didn’t write the music and Mae’s character was not as vivid as the description here. Everything else is pretty much spot on: the acting, the set, the “feel”. It’s an utterly depressing Depression movie. In particular, both Sinise and Malkovich acted wonderfully.

    So for those who have read the book and/or watched the movie (either of them, maybe?), what is your verdict on the end? Was George’s shooting of Lenny (spoiler!) justified? The first time I watched the movie, I saw it as a kind of mercy killing. I watched it again recently, and I decided that it was merely cold blooded murder by the hand of a man who wanted to be rid of a millstone.

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    • Now I am the opposite of you. The first time I read the book, I was horrified that George could murder his best friend. But I think the scene where the dog is shot is the key to the movie. Candy laments that he let a stranger kill his dog. George knew that Lennie was going to be killed for what he had done to Curly’s wife; he might be lynched there or he might be hung after a trial, but he was going to die for it. He felt like it would be more loving, more merciful to have someone who knew and loved Lennie kill him before he had a chance to be frightened or hurt. That’s my take, anyway.

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    • Yeah, I meant Of Mice and Men. Silly me!

      I haven’t seen either movie, but I’ve read the book a few times. I’ve always seen it the way Melanie does–even if George doesn’t kill Lenny, Lenny is still going to be killed–but only after being arrested and tried and convicted by hostile strangers (or lynched). Lenny would spend the whole time confused and hurt and terribly frightened, because he lacks the ability to comprehend what’s going on. Killing Lenny before Lenny has to endure that fear is (in George’s eyes) a mercy. Killing Lenny doesn’t rid George of an unwelcome burden; killing Lenny is a burden he accepts out of love for Lenny.

      George may be a cynical guy, but that friendship with Lenny is all he has.

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  7. Jonathan said:

    Okay I can’t disagree with either of you on this, but I feel that the scene where the dog is killed out of mercy is what shows that George murdered Lenny. Again the first time I saw it, I thought “Oh foreshadowing, that makes George not a murderer”. The second time around I thought “Oh wait, a human isn’t a dog. We don’t ‘mercy kill’ human beings”. Was George faced with a morally unwinnable situation? Maybe.

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