Of Mice and Men: Review
Over shadowed by many of the more spectacular films of the year, it’s easy to forget that the simple but brilliant Of Mice and Men was among the ten nominees for Best Picture of 1939.
Directed by Lewis Milestone (Academy Award winner for All Quiet on the Western Front) and based on the book by the great American author John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men was a prestige project for the lowly regarded Hal Roach Studios. This project was a big leap for the studio whose only previous claim to fame had been Laurel and Hardy shorts and the Our Gang series. This first screen adaptation of a Steinbeck novel came to the poverty row production company by default because no other studio wanted to attempt what was then deemed an un-shoot-able concept. It wasn’t so much the basic story that raised concern, but the nature of one of the main characters.
The story is about two migrant ranch workers during the Great Depression. George is small in stature but very intelligent, while his friend, Lennie is a very big man but less than mentally competent due to an old head injury. Because of Lennie’s lack of judgment George has often had to rescue his friend from a difficult situation, sometimes by getting him out of town quick. The two want to own their own place and are closer to realizing their dream than ever before thanks to a fellow worker who wants to throw in with them. Sadly, Lennie just can’t control his innocent yet dangerous behavior, first with a puppy, then with the foreman’s flirtatious wife. Once again the men must flee. George wants to do what’s best for Lennie, but he realizes there’s no way out this time, so he makes the only choice that will relieve his friend from his continuing agony.
Although the tale is quite tame by today’s standards, it was at the time considered controversial, even sensational for a movie to depict a mentally challenged giant who has trouble distinguishing the boundaries of acceptable physical expression. Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures had first bought the rights to the highly successful book, but let them laps due to his fear of displeasing the strict censors in existence. Without their approval a film would never be cleared for audiences, becoming a useless property condemned to sit in the studio vault, ending up a waist of money, time and talent. Fortunately, that was not the fate for Of Mice and Men. Not only were the filmmakers capable of appeasing the standards of the era, they received universal acclaim for producing one of the most highly regarded films of the year. Truth be told, had the film been released any other year it would have received far more recognition as well as awards, especially for its relatively unknown cast.
The choice in casting is particularly notable as the lead roles were considered to be two of the most highly sought after parts in Hollywood in 1939, rivaling the much-publicized search for Scarlet O’Hara. Broderick Crawford was virtually set to play Lennie, and Spencer Tracey, John Garfield and James Cagney all wanted to play George. So, naturally it came as a surprise when Milestone opted for the inexperienced Lon Chaney, Jr. and the Broadway based Burgess Meredith. But then again, maybe not so surprising when it came to Chaney. After all, he was the son of ‘the man of a thousand faces’. His pedigree suggested great potential as an actor, and indeed he fulfilled expectations in this, his first real leading role. Sadly, his career was soon sidetracked when he became pigeonholed as the Wolf Man, his most famous portrayal. And Meredith’s anonymity allowed the audience to be surprised by the powerful force of the understated ending.
So, all in all, Of Mice and Men may not stand up to the grandeur of Gone With The Wind, the epic adventure of Stagecoach, the caliber of stars in Wuthering Heights or even the production value of any of the other Best Picture nominees of 1939. What Of Mice and Men does offer is outstanding quality in a simple and straightforward presentation. That unique achievement is likely to be one the greatest accomplishments any Hollywood film could ever hope for.