Of Mice and Men (1939 film)
Of Mice and Men is a 1939 American drama film based on the 1937 play based on the novella of the same title by American author John Steinbeck, and starring Burgess Meredith, Betty Field and Lon Chaney Jr. The supporting cast features Charles Bickford, Roman Bohnen, Bob Steele and Noah Beery Jr. The film tells the story of two men, George and his mentally-challenged partner Lennie, trying to survive during the dustbowl of the 1930s and pursuing a dream of owning their own ranch, instead of always working for others. Starring in the lead roles were relative Hollywood newcomer Burgess Meredith as George, and veteran actor Lon Chaney Jr. (the son of famed silent film actor Lon Chaney) as Lennie. Chaney had appeared in more than 50 films to that point in his career, but Of Mice and Men was his first major role. Betty Field's role as Mae is her breakthrough role in film.
|Of Mice and Men|
Theatrical release lobby card
|Directed by||Lewis Milestone|
|Produced by||Lewis Milestone|
|Screenplay by||Eugene Solow|
|Based on||Of Mice and Men|
1937 novella and play
by John Steinbeck
Lon Chaney Jr.
Noah Beery Jr.
|Music by||Aaron Copland|
|Edited by||Bert Jordan|
Hal Roach Studios
|Distributed by||United Artists|
The film, produced by the Hal Roach Studios, was adapted by Eugene Solow and directed by Lewis Milestone. It was nominated for five Academy Awards. The musical score was by American composer Aaron Copland. Running in theaters in 1939, it disappeared for many years at a time until the 1980s and 1990s, when it slowly appeared in revival theater houses, video and cable and earned a following of fans (both audience members and film critics) who praised the movie for its brilliant interpretation of the Steinbeck novella.
Two migrant field workers in California during the Great Depression, George Milton (Burgess Meredith), an intelligent and quick-witted man (despite his frequent claims of being "not that smart"), and Lennie Small (Lon Chaney Jr.), an ironically-named man of large stature and immense strength who, due to his mental disability, has a mind of a young child, hope to one day attain their shared dream of settling down on their own piece of land. Lennie's part of the dream, which he never tires of hearing George describe, is merely to tend to (and touch) soft rabbits on the farm. George protects Lennie at the beginning by telling him that if Lennie gets into trouble George won't let him "tend them rabbits." They are fleeing from their previous employment in Weed where they were run out of town after Lennie's love of stroking soft things resulted in an accusation of attempted rape when he touched and held onto a young woman's dress (not shown, but mentioned).
While on a bus en route to the new ranch, Lennie — who, because of his mental disability, is prone to forget the simplest things or phrases but can only remember about the rabbits—asks George where they are going. George is annoyed about this and tells him about the work cards they got at the bus entrance, which Lennie does remember, but incorrectly remembers having them in his pocket, since George has both of them. After being dropped off 10 miles from their destination, George and Lennie decide to camp for the night by the Salinas River. When George points to Lennie the river, he runs to the river and dunks his whole head in it, drinking from it like an animal. George soon catches Lennie petting a dead bird, takes it away from him and throws it to the other side of the river for safety reasons. When Lennie hears that they are going have beans for dinner, he requests ketchup, to which George responds that they do not have any. At night, as George and Lennie are eating beans for dinner, Lennie requests for the same thing, with George responding angrily, stating that whatever they do not have is what Lennie always wants to have. This leaves Lennie puzzled, as he forgot that first response from earlier. This also causes George to have a long speech about Lennie's ungratefulness, childlike behavior and why they had to escape from Weed. Eventually, George eases the tensions by telling Lennie his favorite story about their future farm before going to sleep.
The next day, they arrive at the ranch near Soledad. They meet Candy (Roman Bohnen), the aged, one-handed ranch-hand with his ageing dog he raised since it was a puppy. After meeting with the ranch boss, Jackson (Oscar O'Shea), the pair are confronted by Curley, the small-statured jealous and violent son of the ranch owner, who threatens to beat Lennie to a pulp because of his height, as Curley hates men who are of large stature. To make matters worse, Curley's seductive, yet sadistic and conniving wife, Mae (Betty Field), to whom Lennie is instantly attracted, flirts with the other ranch hands. George orders Lennie not to look at, or even talk to, her, as he senses the troubles that Mae could bring to the men.
One night, Mae enters the barn in an attempt to talk with Slim (Charles Bickford). Even when Mae explains how her life has been during the Depression, Slim refuses to listen to her and shuns her, saying "You got no troubles, except what you bring on yourself" and tells her to go back to the house. When this statement causes Mae to sob, Slim is forced to give in and let her talk. Back at the bunkhouse, Candy offers to join with George and Lennie after Carlson puts down his dog, so they can buy the farm and the dream appears to move closer to reality. Curley appears and makes a scene in the bunkhouse as the workers mock him after he accused Slim of keeping company with his wife. George and Lennie's dream is over-shadowed when Curley catches Lennie laughing, grabs him from his bunk and starts punching him in the face repeatedly. Instead of fighting back, Lennie asks for help from George, who tells him to fight back. Upon hearing George say this, Lennie catches Curley's hand and crushes it, not letting go until he finds out what he did. Slim gives Curley an ultimatum: not to tell anyone what exactly happened. If Curley does tell his father in retribution to get Lennie and George fired, Slim will tell everyone what happened. Curley is told, for this reason, to say that he got his hand caught in a piece of machinery.
On Saturday night, everyone, except Lennie, Candy and Crooks (Leigh Whipper) (because of his race), are in town, enjoying themselves. Crooks asks Lennie to stay in his room and Lennie explains to him about the farm that he, George and Candy are going to own, forgetting his promise to George not to tell this to anyone. Candy gets into the conversation too, and when George comes back first, he sees Lennie smoking a cigar and takes it away, guessing what Lennie had done. At that moment, Mae enters the bunkhouse, trying to ask Crooks who crushed Curley's hand. When Crooks refuses to respond, Mae callously calls the four "bindlestiffs" in an attempt to belittle them. When Candy responds with proof of what they are going to do in the future, Mae refuses to accept their American dream, calling him an "old goat." When Mae tries to get Crooks to explain what happened to Curley's hand (despite the fact that he was not present), George mentions that nobody did it, briefly leading Mae to believe that George was the one who crushed his hand. George tries to explain what they are going to do in the future, and that, if Mae keeps constantly flirting with them, she is going to cause the dream to crash. The callous Mae refuses to listen, and, while looking for the person who crushed her husband's hand, sees Lennie's bloodied and bruised face, and she finds out that he is the one responsible. When Mae tries to be kind to Lennie and to "thank" him for what he did, George grabs her by the shoulder, berates her and tells her to return to the house. Mae refuses to do so, saying that she has the right to talk to and flirt with whomever she comes across. Jackson, who happened to be standing by Crooks' door, catches George with his hand raised, with the intention to slap Mae across the face because of her arrogance and negligence. Holding a horsewhip in his hand, Jackson silently dissuades him from doing so and to let Mae go back to the house unharmed.
The next morning, Mae confronts Curley, who repeats the same statement Slim gave him earlier, but because Mae knows the truth, she taunts him, calling him "a punk with a crippled hand!" Curley then tells her that their marriage is over, and that she is going to be kicked out of the ranch due to her carnal behavior with the ranch hands. She continues to laugh hysterically until she starts to weep, realizing she is now done for. Before she can leave, Mae enters the barn to pet a few of Slim's puppies, when she spots Lennie sobbing, after he killed his puppy by stroking it too hard. When Lennie tries to leave, knowing he should not be talking to Mae as ordered by George, she stops him from leaving and forces him to talk to her. Mae explains to Lennie what she wanted to be before Curley shattered her dream. When Lennie tells Mae that he loves to stroke soft things, Mae allows him to stroke her hair, telling him not to "muss it up." Mae starts to resist and scream when Lennie strokes her hair too hard. However, when Lennie tries to silence Mae, he accidentally kills her, breaking her neck unintentionally. This puts an end to their own American dream.
When Candy and George find Mae's body, they tell the others, including Curley, who grows infuriated. As a result, a lynch mob gathers to kill Lennie. However, George and Slim go off alone to find Lennie. George tells Slim that he has Carlson's Luger after he and Candy see Mae's dead body. George and Slim separate and go off to find Lennie. George finds him first and, realizing he is doomed to a life of loneliness and despair like the rest of the migrant workers, wants to spare Lennie a painful death at the hands of the furious and cold-hearted Curley. After giving Lennie one last retelling of their dream of buying their own land, George shoots Lennie in the back of the head with Carlson's Luger before the mob can find him. When the mob arrives too late, only Slim realizes what George has done, and hands the Luger to a local police officer as they leave the river.
When the film was first released, Frank S. Nugent, the film critic of The New York Times, praised the film and the acting, writing, "And New York, unless we have miscalculated again, will endorse its film version, at the Roxy, as heartily as it has endorsed the film of the Joads. The pictures have little in common as narrative, but they have much in common as art; the same deft handling of their material, the same understanding of people, the same ability to focus interest sharply and reward it with honest craftsmanship and skill... No small share of that credit belongs to the men and the one young woman Hal Roach has recruited for his production. Miss Field has added stature to the role of the foreman's wife by relieving her of the play's box-office-conscious order that she behave like a hoyden."
The staff at Variety magazine also reviewed the film favorably, writing, "Under skillful directorial guidance of Lewis Milestone, the picture retains all of the forceful and poignant drama of John Steinbeck's original play and novel, in presenting the strange palship and eventual tragedy of the two California ranch itinerants. In transferring the story to the screen, the scripter Eugene Solow eliminated the strong language and forthright profanity. Despite this requirement for the Hays whitewash squad, Solow and Milestone retain all of the virility of the piece in its original form."
The film received very positive reviews, earning a 100% film score on the Rotten Tomatoes Web site based on eleven reviews.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
- 2005: AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores – Nominated
In popular culture
A 1961 episode of the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes animated cartoon entitled The Abominable Snow Rabbit, parodies Lennie and George. In American theatrical cartoons from Warners and MGM, large strong dimwitted characters of various species were often depicted and voiced as burlesques of Chaney Jr.'s interpretation of Lennie, most notably in Lonesome Lenny, the final cartoon featuring Screwy Squirrel.
- List of films with a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a film review aggregator website
- Of Mice and Men at the American Film Institute Catalog.
- Nugent, Frank S. The New York Times, film review, February 17, 1940. Accessed: February 12, 2011.
- Variety. Staff film review, 1939. Accessed: February 12, 2011.
- Of Mice and Men. Rotten Tomatoes, film reviews, no date. Accessed: August 17, 2013.
- "The 12th Academy Awards (1940) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved August 17, 2013.
- "AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-06.
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