• U.S.

Cinema: The New Pictures: Jan. 15, 1940

3 minute read

Of Mice and Men (United Artists). This first John Steinbeck picture is U. S. amusement seekers’ third exposure to his bleak account of manly affection between two bin die stiffs (tramps who tote their own blankets) on a California grain ranch. It was first a novel, then a Broadway play.

This time Lon Chancy Jr. (in his first big role) is hulking, dim-witted Lennie, who looks like a moronic Mr. Deeds, has a well-meant, heavy-handed way of stroking puppies, mice and young women into rigor mortis. Actor Burgess Meredith is George, Lennie’s somewhat brighter brain. Betty Field (who meets Director Lewis Milestone’s requirements of “just a simple young small-town girl with a body”) is Mae, the somewhat floozied ranch wife whose neck Lennie inadvertently breaks.

Author Steinbeck’s big problem in writing Of Mice and Men was to make U. S. lower depths realistic without making his novel drab. Even harder was to make his mangy bottom-dogs plausible and pathetic without making George and Lennie’s relationship grotesque or gooey. Author Steinbeck made loneliness the common human factor of all his bindle stiffs, made their loneliness as vast as the western mountains they work among, but made them express it only in two-syllable language as mean, hard and sometimes as foul as their semisavage existence. Result was no U. S. The Lower Depths, but a bleak, unhappy little tale with a powerful climax, some of whose tenseness was due to a nervous feeling that if Author Steinbeck made one false step he would flop off his tightrope.

In putting Of Mice and Men on film Director Lewis (Milly) Milestone ran the same risk, faced enthusiastically the certainty that his camera lenses would exaggerate every flaw the author had covered with writing craft in the book. He also had to tone down to a rough whisper the novel’s tangy native speech to suit the ears of censors.

In a succession of swift, spare, terse scenes he succeeds in making Steinbeck’s subhuman characters human, cleverly drowns out the false note of sentimentality in George and Lennie’s relation by keeping it focussed on action rather than feeling, forcing the tension. From the opening shot (before the title flashes) of George and Lennie escaping their pursuers by jumping a freight, until George shoots Lennie through the head to save him from a posse, there is scarcely a word, gesture or incident too much. More tender than the tough stage version, the impact of the picture is tough and raw enough.

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