Tuesday, December 30, 2014

'Of Mice and Men': Steinbeck's Tale Wasn't P.C.

Lennie (Lon Chaney Jr.): I wish we had some ketchup.

George (Burgess Meredith): Whatever we ain't got, that's what you want!

(1939 is widely regarded as the greatest year ever for the motion picture. Ten movies were nominated for Best Picture that year, and today I take a look at the last of those 10 movies to hit the theaters.)
"Of Mice and Men," which made its debut 75 years ago today, was a gritty tale — and, frankly, a rather unlikely project for producer Hal Roach, who was mainly known for his comedies. But because of a lawsuit, Roach agreed to produce a film version of the John Steinbeck story.

The main characters, George (Burgess Meredith) and Lennie (Lon Chaney Jr.), were traveling ranch hands, trying to collect enough money to buy their own place. Well, that was George's dream. All Lennie wanted to do was "tend the rabbits." Lennie seemed gentle enough, but he just didn't know his own strength — which was considerable.

They were mutually dependent. Lennie was mentally handicapped but possessed remarkable physical strength. George was the idea guy, the brains of the outfit. Lennie had an obsession with soft things, an obsession that caused some problems. George told Lennie they were "bad things" that he mustn't do, and Lennie lived in fear of violating George's rules.

"Of Mice and Men" was remade twice, the last time in 1992. I sometimes wonder if it could be made a fourth time — and I usually conclude that it couldn't because, on the surface, it seems to fail the politically correct litmus test.

The theme of abuse — of a mentally retarded man, of a black man, of a self–absorbed woman — might pass the test, but the almost stereotypical treatment of those characters could negate their effectiveness in the 21st century.

Steinbeck himself observed, for example, that the young and pretty wife of the boss' son was "not a person, she's a symbol. She has no function except to be a foil — and a danger to Lennie." For that reason, Steinbeck gave her no name in the book, but she had one in the movie — Mae. To pass muster in the 21st century, I think her character might need to be fleshed out even more.

Played by Betty Field in the 1939 movie, Mae wasn't as one–dimensional on the screen as she was on the pages of Steinbeck's novella. She was still a shallow character — but she was played smartly by Field, who was appearing in only her second movie.

A problem for the P.C. crowd might also be the callous treatment of the aging dog. The dog's owner was persuaded to let one of the hands shoot him because he was old. It neatly foreshadowed the end of the book and the movie, when George killed Lennie in what might almost be seen as a mercy killing today.

I don't want to spoil it for you if you haven't read the book or seen the movie. But you should do both if you have done neither, and, if you have only done one, you should do the other. "The Grapes of Wrath" wasn't the only thing that Steinbeck ever wrote — but it was the only one that became a Best Picture winner.

I've seen all 10 of the movies that were nominated for Best Picture in 1939, and, with this blog post, I have now written about all 10 as well. I don't disagree that the winner, "Gone With the Wind," was a great movie, but if I had been alive at the time and I had been given a vote, I think I might have voted for "Of Mice and Men." I thought the story was better, and, actually, I thought the acting was, too, even though the acting wasn't recognized by the Oscars.

For people of my generation, Meredith was already an established star of movies and TV. We have rarely seen him when he was as young as he was in "Of Mice and Men," but he was barely in his 30s when it was made.

Chaney was already a movie veteran, having appeared in nearly 60 movies by the time "Of Mice and Men" was made. His claim to fame is his work as the Wolf Man in the 1940s, but, before he did that, he lobbied for — and got — the role of Lennie.

I didn't realize, as a child, that one of the cartoons that always entertained me was, in fact, a vicious parody of Chaney's performance. I laughed at it, not knowing what it was spoofing. Since I have seen "Of Mice and Men," I know why my father laughed, too.

It feels wrong to laugh at it now. I guess that is the influence of the P.C. crowd, but, really, it isn't fair to hold Steinbeck or Looney Tunes to modern standards when they functioned in the world that existed more than 70 years ago.

So laughing at the Looney Tunes cartoon may be something of a guilty pleasure, like laughing at some of the skits on Saturday Night Live.