Tuesday, May 17, 2011


1939 was an epic year for the American cinema. So many top notch performances were given in that year, it is a shame that the movie industry of today is not looking back at what was done right in 1939. One movie released in 1939 that had everything going for it was OF MICE AND MEN. The film was based on the novella of the same title by American author John Steinbeck. It stars Burgess Meredith, Betty Field, Lon Chaney, Jr., Charles Bickford, Roman Bohnen, Bob Steele and Noah Beery, Jr. It was unfortunately remade in 1992.

The film tells the story of how the lead characters, George and Lennie, try to pursue their dream of owning their own ranch instead of working always for other people.

The film, produced by the Hal Roach Studios, was adapted by Eugene Solow and directed by Lewis Milestone. It was nominated for four Oscars. The musical score was by American composer Aaron Copland.

Two migrant field workers in California during the Great Depression—George Milton (Burgess Meredith), an intelligent and cynical man, and Lennie Small (Lon Chaney, Jr.), an ironically-named man of large stature and immense strength but limited mental abilities—come to a ranch near Soledad southeast of Salinas, California to "work up a stake." They 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 a young woman's dress.

At the ranch, the dream appears to move closer to reality. Candy (Roman Bohnen), the aged, one-handed ranch-hand, even offers to pitch in with Lennie and George so they can buy the farm by the end of the month. The dream crashes when Lennie accidentally kills the young and attractive wife (Betty Field) of Curley (Bob Steele), the ranch owner's son, while trying to stroke her hair. A lynch mob led by Curley gathers. George, realizing he is doomed to a life of loneliness and despair like the rest of the migrant workers and wanting to spare Lennie a painful death at the hands of the vengeful and violent Curley, shoots Lennie in the back of the head before the mob can find him after George gives him one last retelling of their dream of owning their own land.

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, 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 1939 classic was was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Sound Recording, Best Musical Score, and Best Original Score, but it did not win a single award. The movie is some 72 years old, but for the acting of Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr alone it is worth dusting off this old movie, making some popcorn, and enjoying a truly great movie of classic cinema...


  1. A powerful and heartbreaking film, one of the greats of that great year.

  2. 1939s "Of Mice and Men" is one of those films I shared with my daughter while she was in high school. One day she came home to report that her English teacher had shown the class the 1992 version and while she felt there was nothing wrong with it, she thanked me very much for showing her the classic first.

    Like the novella on which it is based, "Of Mice and Men" is hard to take, but impossible to turn away from.

  3. Thanks so much for your great review of a neglected classic. It's a beautiful, poignant movie; Burgess Meredith's performance is excellent, but I always think Lon Chaney's acting is really the stand-out; it's a good chance to see what he could do when not in Universal horror films.

  4. Enjoyed your review very much. Every time I see this film, I wonder whether Lon Chaney, Jr. would have had a more successful career if he had just avoided following in his father footsteps with THE WOLF MAN. Meredith was a fine actor who didn't get a lot of good roles. He appeared in one of my all-time favorite TWILIGHT ZONE episodes.

  5. Before I give a comment on this review I'll explain myself.

    I've known Gary Sinise for about 16 years now and on one of our visits several years ago he told me about his remake of this film. I was obviously unaware of this remake but after our visit and his discussing filming, choosing Malkovich etc I was intrigued, although aware that it is pretty bold to remake such a classic film.

    I immediately found the remake and I have to say that although it's stellar the original is top of the line. Just as your review is! A film that translates to today's audiences while being respectful to the sometimes harsh subject matter.
    Well done!

  6. I love this film. Yes, it may be hard to take, but Caftan Woman is right -- you can't turn away from it. Two outstanding performances. I'm glad the Academy at least nominated it for best picture and recognized its excellence.

  7. Lobosco, we have a lot in common! I did an article about Of Mice and Men on my own blog a while back, and for the same reason I think you picked it -- love for this marvelous film. In every way, I believe it is one of the few flawless films in terms of actors, director, cinematography, set, and of course Steinbeck's incredibly poignant story. Topping it all was the music by the great Aaron Copeland.

    Your review was a wonderful tribute to this movie, and I am so glad someone with your quality of writing chose it. Thanks so much for sharing it on our blogathon!

  8. I have to confess that when I finally saw this film a few years ago I did not find it a completely satisfying experience. I found the plot rather contrived in that it follows a lock-step process to inevitable tragedy, an approach I find emotionally distancing. This is, of course, down to the original source and John Steinbeck's obsession with martyrdom. I especially found Betty Field's character hard to take, and it didn't help that I've always thought her a very unsubtle actress. In a way, the story seems almost a strange variation of the fall from paradise with George and Lennie as Adam and Eve and Field as the serpent. Maybe it's Steinbeck's propensity to write parables with Biblical parallels that makes me see the film in this way. Two things that are undeniably strong, though, are the friendship between George and Lennie--whatever its nature--and the unforgettable performance of Lon Chaney, Jr. I've always felt that his failure to get an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor was the biggest oversight of that year.

  9. Lobosco, you have an insightful point about Steinbeck's biblical approach in his writing. His most notable book with this aspect is East of Eden, with the 2 brothers who are modern Cain and Able.

    I love Steinbeck and his emphasis on the martyrdom of humanity in this world.

  10. Thanks for all the kind words - I first saw the movie in one of my classes in college - that was nearly 15 years ago. I think the draw for me is the acting of Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr.

    Nothing against the acting of Gary Sinise - but I do not feel the remake in 1992 can compare...