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It's no secret that 1939 was a banner year for American motion pictures. Such enduring classics as Gone with the Wind (1939), The Wizard of Oz (1939), and Stagecoach (1939) provided moviegoers with the kinds of thrills that last a lifetime, and, even today, new viewers are discovering and embracing these works. Lewis Milestone's Of Mice and Men (1939), however, is one great picture from that astounding year that somehow slipped through the cracks over the past eight decades. Although this adaptation of John Steinbeck's grim but strangely humanistic novel is a bit dated in its moralizing, it still packs a terrific punch in the 21st century.
Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr. play George Milton and Lennie Small, itinerant farm hands who, seeking employment during the Great Depression, hop a boxcar to California. George is more than Lennie's friend - he's his caretaker. Lennie is mentally disabled after receiving a kick in the head from a horse, and George has taken it upon himself to help this childlike giant of a man survive.
The two friends eventually land at the Jackson Ranch, where their dreams of having a ranch of their own will be destroyed by a combination of fear, hatred, and sexual jealousy, much of it fostered by the ranch owner (Bob Steele) and his philandering wife (Betty Field). The film's tragic, violent ending is one of the most memorable in all of movie history. Audiences at the time were so troubled by this narrative of slowly-rising defeat, the film failed miserably at the box office. Apparently, it was one thing to read such a thing, but another altogether to watch it unfold onscreen.
Of Mice and Men was adapted as a play before it reached movie screens. It was a hit on Broadway when director Lewis Milestone and screenwriter Rowland Brown purchased the rights. Initially, the two planned to cast actor Guinn Williams as Lennie, and their then-producer, Hal Roach, unsuccessfully attempted to secure either James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart from Warner Bros. for the role of George. Meredith and Chaney were not high on the list of initial casting choices. Yet Milestone saw something in them, and his intuition paid off - both men deliver arguably the best work of their respective careers in the film.
In his autobiography, So Far, So Good, Meredith intimates that it was amazing he was able to perform at all. After breaking up with his wife [Margaret Perry] - who, he says, was rightfully unable to handle his wild mood swings Meredith lit out for Germany for some pre-War hedonistic relaxation. There, he met Marlene Dietrich, and even participated in a brief mnage a trois affair with two women!
It didn't, however, help him blow off much steam. "My psyche took a very bad beating in the late 1930s," he wrote. "My vitality was high because I was young. But I couldn't handle the extraneous activities, the drinking, the frustrations, and the neuroses that I was accumulating. With all that ferment, I was hard pressed to keep my status as a star. There was a dimming of talent and health. It's a miracle I didn't physically collapse."
Happily, Of Mice and Men became a turning point in Meredith's career, and he also made a lifelong friend in John Steinbeck. Steinbeck even wrote two of his novels, The Moon Is Down and Bombs Away at Meredith's Mount Ivy, New York home, and, for many years, Meredith had an unproduced play that Steinbeck wrote tucked away in a trunk at his home which was about a modern-day Joan of Arc. He said it was one of the great tragedies of his life that he eventually lost the manuscript during a move.
Director: Lewis Milestone
Producer: Lewis Milestone
Screenplay: Eugene Solow (based on the novel by John Steinbeck)
Editor: Bert Jordan
Cinematographer: Norbert Brodine
Music: Aaron Copland
Art Design: Nicolai Remisoff
Special Effects: Roy Seawright
Cast: Burgess Meredith (George), Betty Field (Mae), Lon Chaney, Jr. (Lennie), Charles Bickford (Slim), Roman Bohnen (Candy), Bob Steele (Curley), Noah Beery, Jr. (Whit), Oscar O'Shea (Jackson), Granville Bates (Carlson).
by Paul Tatara