Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 6, 2020)
Though many regard 1939 as Hollywood’s greatest year, one film dominated the landscape: Gone With the Wind. A massive box office hit, it also won eight Oscars, including the coveted Best Picture.
Runner-ups from that year included The Wizard Of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Stagecoach. Any of those could’ve won Best Picture in any other year.
The first adaptation of John Steinbeck’s 1937, Of Mice and Men also became one of the Best Picture nominees. Steinbeck was a great writer and Mice was a fine book, but I have to admit the movie doesn’t work for me.
Set during the Great Depression, George Milton (Burgess Meredith) and Lennie Small (Lon Chaney, Jr.) take work wherever they can get it. Lennie suffers from cognitive disabilities and George cares for him the best he can.
Lennie and George dream of a day when they can own their own farm. They arrive at a new job on a ranch with hopes that their work will push them toward their goal, but various problems arise.
As noted, Mice seems to be pretty highly regarded as a movie, too, but I frankly don't get it. I may be in the minority on this issue - as the DVD case touts, even Steinbeck thought it was a terrific film - but I feel that the movie simply lacks heart and feeling.
This means Mice deals with the story in a broad, superficial manner and presents little sense of reality, a concept that's clearly at the heart of Steinbeck's writing.
So many of the characters feel like stereotypes that I simply can't buy them as people. They seem so cartoony that I feel little emotion or interest in any of them.
Ironically, Chaney's portrayal of Lennie remains famous because of cartoons. The Warner Bros. studios incorporated his character along with that of George into their Looney Tunes series, and did so with amazing accuracy. Mel Blanc perfectly mimicked the goofball vocal tones of Chaney with his constant requests to "tell me about the rabbits, George!"
While this duplication offers a representation of Blanc's amazing skills, it also occurs in large part due to the unrealistic portrayal from Chaney. His Lennie is an interesting character but he's so broad and emotive that no sense of true personality comes through and he's just a big goofy dude.
Betty Field also fares poorly as lonely wife Mae, for she plays the role as some sort of gumcracking moll. Okay, she doesn't actually crack any gum, but her sassy performance makes me think she should.
Field seems out of place as a neglected, bored Midwestern gal. She offers another reason why I can't feel involved in this film.
While Meredith does a competent job as George, he feels completely miscast. George should be a fairly simple man who's smarter than Lennie but still a pretty basic, down-to-earth guy.
Meredith simply seems too intelligent and quick-witted for the role. A bookish actor, he appears completely out of place in this rural setting.
As with Field, he'd seem much more at home in the city. Meredith doesn't appear embarrassing, but he lacks the grit and conviction to make the part work.
Aaron Copland's score also feels ridiculously overwrought, and it makes little sense in connection with the events. For example, the film's climax offers music that seems bizarrely whimsical before it then becomes absurdly overpowering.
Copland really pushes the emotional buttons to manipulate the viewers, but his choices often make no sense. This becomes yet another reason I never feel involved in the film.
Ultimately, I simply think that Mice fails the strong source material. I find little sense of the characters as real people and I never feel any investment or interest in them.