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USA 1939
Directed by
Lewis Milestone
107 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Of Mice And Men (1939)

Although feeling at times a tad caricatural in its portrayal of dirt poor, Depression era farm workers, a tendency which seems typical of this kind of down South material (compare it to, for instance, John Ford’s Tobacco Road,1941) director Lewis Milestone achieves a faithful, well-crafted and empathetic screen transposition of the well-known novella by John Steinbeck (and its successful stage adaptation which won the New York Drama Critics Circle award as the best play of the 1937-38 season) in a story already sentimental enough not to need any further embellishing for the screen.

Burgess Meredith plays itinerant farm worker George Milton who with his simple-minded companion Lennie Small (Lon Chaney Jr.) begins working at a ranch near Soledad, California. Good-natured but awkward, Lennie has a involuntary habit of getting into trouble and despite George’s best efforts he does so again, this time with tragic results.

If Chaney is repetitiously one-note in his performance, Meredith is winning as his devoted minder, frustrated by the burdensome nature of his charge yet for all that deeply caring about him. The rest of the characters including Roman Bohnen's Candy, Charles Bickford's Slim and Betty Field’s Mae add texture if not realism (Field in particular squawks  like a Jersey fish-wife) to the proceedings though Bob Steele’s Curley is simply yet another instance of the innumerable bit-part cowboys he played during a long jobbing career. There is one qualitative anomaly with the film and I assume that this is due to Hays Office interference and that is Mae’s demise which is at best perfunctorily handled and robs it of what should have been its climactic moment.

Although Milestone does give some attention to the reality of the story’s rural setting, the film feels close to the stage version with most of the significant action taking place in the bunkhouse, mess hall and adjoining stables as it methodically plays out its small tragedy of simple dreams destroyed by cruelly indifferent  fate.




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