Of Mice and Men

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

DVD

Image Entertainment, standard 1.33:1, languages: English PCM Mono, subtitles: none, single side-single layer, 24 chapters, rated NR, 106 min., $24.98, street date 8/26/98.

Studio Line

Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Score, Best Scoring, Best Sound, 1940.

Directed by Lewis Milestone. Starring Lon Chaney Jr., Burgess Meredith, Betty Field, Charles Bickford, Bob Steele, Noah Beery Jr.

George and Lennie are a pair of itinerant farm hands who dream of someday having their own modest ranch, but in the meantime toil for uncaring ranch owners. George (Meredith) must constantly watch over Lennie (Chaney) who has very few wits but an enormous strength which is always getting them into trouble when he finds a small animal or pretty girl that he innocently wants to caress. Always just a few steps ahead of disaster, the two friends land at yet another farm where circumstances and the help of a few fellow dreamers seem to bring their fantasies within reach. It is all the more tragic then, when Lennie finds trouble that there is no running away from and George is called on to carry out a final and ultimate act of friendship.

Picture/Sound/Extras (C-/C-/F)

Recently I read an article about Charles Barkley in which the author discussed Barkley's inability to win an NBA championship. In this the writer opined that the failure experienced by Barkley and peers such as Patrick Ewing and Karl Malone had nothing to do with their skills or their heart. No, they didn't win championships because of a chronological misfortune: all of them were born at roughly the same time as one Michael Jordan.

Such is the fate experienced by films released in 1939. That year boasted an astonishingly long list of classics among its releases, but all would be for naught due to the juggernaut called Gone With the Wind. Runner-ups from that year included The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Stagecoach, all films that easily could have won Best Picture honors in many other years.

Also among the crop of nominees was Of Mice and Men, the first adaptation of John Steinbeck's book. (For the record, the Best Picture field was more crowded than we see nowadays; through 1943, ten films received nominations for that honor. The list was halved the following year and has remained that way.) Steinbeck was a great writer and OMAM was a fine book; I prefer The Grapes of Wrath, but that shouldn't detract from the high quality of OMAM.

OMAM seems to be pretty highly regarded as a movie, too, but I frankly didn'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 felt that the movie simply lacked heart and feeling; it dealt with the story in a broad, superficial manner and presented little sense of reality, a concept that's clearly at the heart of Steinbeck's writing.

Some of my sentiments seem to be derived from the different style of acting that appeared to be prevalent in that era. Actors used much more theatrical attitudes and played their roles in much broader ways, at least as evidenced here. Everything is played in a big way, with big emotions and big gestures; little subtlety or sense of realness escapes.

As such, I had a hard time feeling involved in the story. So many of the characters felt like stereotypes that I simply couldn't by them as people; they seemed so cartoony that I felt little emotion or interest in any of them.

Ironically, Lon Chaney Jr.'s portrayal of Lennie remains famous because of cartoons. The Warner Bros. studios incorporated his character along with that of George (Burgess Meredith) into their Looney Tunes series, and did so with amazing accuracy; Mel Blanc was able to perfectly mimic the goofball tones of Chaney with his constant requests to "tell me about the rabbits, George!"

While this duplication is a representation of Blanc's amazing skills, it also occurred 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; he's just a big goofy moron. Also very weak was Betty Field, who played lonely wife Mae as some sort of gumcracking moll. (Okay, she doesn't actually crack any gum, but her sassy performance made me think she should.) Field seemed absolutely out of place as a neglected, bored Midwestern gal and offered another reason why I couldn't feel involved in this film.

While Meredith does a competent job as George, I felt that he was 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 to intelligent and quick-witted for the role. He was a bookish actor who appeared completely out of place in this heartland setting; as with Field, he'd seem much more at home in the city. Meredith didn't appear embarrassing, but he lacked the grit and conviction to make the part work.

He may be incredibly famous, but I also found that Aaron Copland's score was ridiculously overwrought. It also made little sense in connection with the events. For example, the film's climax offered music that was bizarrely whimsical before it became absurdly overpowering. Copland really pushed on the emotional buttons to manipulate the viewers, but his choices often made no sense. This was yet another reason I never felt involved in the film.

Ultimately, I simply think that the entire movie failed the strong material. I had little sense of the characters as real people and I never felt any investment or interest in them. How detached was I from this film? I love dogs, and movie scenes that show harm - real or just potential - to dogs kill me. OMAM features an extended segment in which Candy is convinced his old dog is no use anymore and needs to be shot. This scene should have had me bawling, but instead I just felt bored. Man, if a dog shooting can't get my emotional juices flowing, then there's no hope at all for the movie!

Of Mice And Men appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD. Since it's a fullscreen film, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. I found OMAM to look almost shockingly good for such an old film. I recognize this statement may seem inconsistent with my "C-" rating, but that befell the DVD because the image really does present a fair number of flaws. Nonetheless, I found it to be a pleasant surprise when one considers the extreme age of the material.

It seems to be that factor that accounts for virtually all of the problems with the picture of OMAM. While the movie displayed relatively few print flaws, I still saw many. Scratches, marks, spots and speckles are not infrequent, though I must emphasize that I expected many more than I saw. Grain seems almost nonexistent, and I also noticed no digital artifacts. Transitions between scenes - especially when there's a fade from one segment to the next - are generally problematic and often result in a brief, slight flickering effect.

The picture usually appears pretty sharp, though this is also inconsistent. A vague blurriness creeps into a fair number of scenes without any particular rhyme or reason; with some movies, it's only a certain kind of shot - say, a wide one - that acts that way, but no discernible trend occurred here. Since OMAM is a black and white film, color obviously is not an issue. Black levels looked fairly splendid and were probably the most consistent aspect of the transfer. Every once in a while a little excessive grayness would taint them, but that happened very rarely. For the most part, blacks look quite deep and shadow detail seemed great; I experienced no trouble making out what was happening in less well-lighted scenes. While I expect a very thorough restoration could solve some of the problems with this disc, I still found OMAM to look quite good. v Of Mice And Men offers only monaural sound, presented here in PCM audio. I listened to it with both my surround settings turned on and off and noted little difference between the two methods, though I think it may have sounded slightly better with the sound field "off."

As with the picture, the audio for OMAM objectively is not very good, but subjectively seems surprisingly strong. I consider the age factor quite heavily when I review audio, much more strongly than I "prorate" the picture; the difference between current sound technology and that of 60 years ago seems much greater than in the area of film, so I tend to more easily forgive audio problems.

Of which we hear plenty in OMAM, but I still found it to sound relatively good. It's a pretty dialogue-heavy movie, so it was important that the speech appear clear and intelligible. That it is, and consistently so; I never had any trouble at all understanding what the characters said (which is especially important since Image Entertainment declined to include subtitles).

Essentially, the audio varied between two modes. At times, it sounded like someone turned on a "noise reduction" filter, and as a result, background hiss and pops would decrease, but the dialogue would also appear duller and less lively. For most of the film, though, it seems that the original audio comes through without interference. As such, we definitely hear a lot of crackles and pops from the source, but at least the dialogue seems fairly natural and true. It tends toward the trebly end of things, but I greatly preferred the sound without the added flatness of the "noise reduction."

The dialogue usually lacks distortion, though it can become harsh when a character shouts. Effects fare about the same; they usually sounded fairly thin but acceptable. The score probably suffers the most problems - especially when the volume raises - but since it's generally fairly subdued, that's not a significant issue. Ultimately, the audio clearly shows its age, but it seems relatively good nonetheless.

The major negative with this DVD stems from its supplements: there aren't any. No trailer, no biographies, no production notes - no nothin'! Actually, the blurb on the back of the box are more extensive than usual and could almost qualify as production notes. Still, more details would have been nice.

I love Steinbeck but I simply can't recommend Of Mice and Men in this film version. It's broadly acted and lacks the emotional involvement and impact it should provide. The DVD provides flawed but surprisingly good picture and sound but includes virtually no supplements. Unless you're dying to witness the inspiration for some famous Looney Tunes characters, OMAM is a DVD to miss.


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