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OF MICE AND MEN

by Robert M. Young

It was startlingly discordant to open on a silent Technicolor scene with a woman moving in a dreamlike way. She is running and screaming; then there are two men running away; then a posse. The water splashes from their horses’ hooves in the same dreamlike way.

This languid style of photography persists throughout the film. My first reaction was to find it sacrilegious to film Steinbeck in colour, but I soon recalled that ‘East of Eden’ was in colour, and I didn’t object to that. But ‘Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘Cannery Row’ stay in the mind as ur-Steinbeck and are in black and white. Of Mice and Men is a novella written in basic English, a simple, mythic tale. You could say it’s Steinbeck’s ego ideal of brotherly love to place against the pessimism of his rendition of the strictures of the superego in the Cain and Abel story in East of Eden. I recall reading that he wrote Of Mice and Men with the theatre in mind. It is a tale of two young migrant labourers in California who travel together, George small and smart, Lennie, large and dim.

When Lennie speaks there is another shock. His is a childlike voice, affected, verging on the silly - the voice of a simpleton. The original screen Lennie, Lon Chaney Jr. did not speak in that register or in that style.

By this point the question about the film is whether or not I am prepared for it to stand on its own terms. Will I allow there to be a re-make of such a beloved classic? Is anyone allowed to play those parts except the original actors?

The answer becomes yes and no. Curley, the cocky jealous husband, played by Casey Siemaszko, is a dead-ringer for the original one. Candy, the old man with only one hand and a mangy dog, is played by Ray Walston, a veteran character actor from many a film (e.g., ‘The Sting’), and is perfect. Crooks (Noble Willingham), the ostracised black man with a bent back, would be okay if it was not for the memory of the original. Slim, the foreman, is too handsome - John Terry looks rather like Sam Sheppard. He is too young and too recently barbered to have the battered wisdom Charles Bickford displayed. One can’t imagine him as a bindle-stiff, drifting from job to job.

And there is George. Burgess Meredith is George, just as absolutely as Lon Chaney, Jr. is Lennie. The story of the rabbits is told in his voice, just as surely as certain Disney characters are Phil Harris, Merry Melodies are Mel Blanc. Henry Fonda has Tom Joad’s voice and John Carradine has Preacher’s. That’ the way it is; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Gary Sinise not only plays George. He also directs and co-produces. He was at the screening and stood on the stairs as I left. I walked a few feet beyond him and thought of going back to congratulate him, but I didn’t. The reason is that although I was moved and found it beautiful, I felt, on balance, that it should not have been pretty. The dream should remain in the mind. It is the vision of the farm with the rabbits and alfalfa and ‘living off the fat of the land’. To make the ranch dream-like is to underplay the stark contrast between the lives of those utterly lonely people and their foredoomed fantasy of having a place of their own, where ‘nobody can can us’ and they could take a day off and invite a friend to stay and not end up like Candy and Crooks - all used up with no place to go and having to take whatever handyman or barn job that’s going.

I can understand the temptation to film it as they did. The director of photography, Kenneth MacMillan, said, ‘As a counterpoint to the sadness and loneliness of the characters, we went for a warm, rich look with oranges and deep golds’. I think it was a mistake. In spite of all the studying of period photos by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans and the assiduous study of old Montgomery Ward catalogues, the workers are too obviously costumed, the ranch too lovely. There is no grime. Even the bunkhouse is like a stage set. I suppose I am back to wanting black and white, but that’s not all. (‘Blade Runner’ was in colour but its atmosphere was still dank.) It is romanticised. The shots of the men at work and at play are idealised. The men’s bodies are sharp, while the fields are in soft focus, as if in a painting.

Having said all of that, I was won over by John Malkovitch, but it was a struggle. His characterisation of Lennie was one which he inhabited completely, for example, when he played with the puppy and when he laughed. Even so, I cannot refrain from saying that no one - no one on earth - could knit his brows like Lon Chaney Jr. His portrayal of the gap between his elemental feelings and what he dimly perceives as knowledge of good and evil brings with it echoes of all those classic horror films, with shots of the Frankenstein monster with the little girl and of the moment of change to the Wolfman as the full moon appears, just as he realised it was inescapable, and he would kill again. Malkovitch did not have that bewilderment, that authority, that dawning awareness of the tragic. Having so often heard cartoon versions of Lennie beseeching George, that tone and those cadences are irreplaceable: ‘I wish I had a little friend, a little friend to pet and play with. I used to have a little friend, but he don’t move no more.’ What Malcovitch had instead was what Dustin Hoffman had in ‘Rainman’: he played it from the inside with utter conviction.

I wish I could say the same of Gary Sinise. He, too, won my admiration, but his first long speech, when he tells Lennie what a burden he is and how he wished he hadn’t taken him on when Lennie’s aunt had died, was simply not done well. Everything that followed was, but the harm had been done. He was especially good in still moments when we could read his mind - pride in Lennie’s work in the fields, his unspoken alliance of worldly understanding with Slim, his sense of the danger in Curley’s wife’s sultry, simpering prick-teasing (Sherilyn Fenn, whom I found unmoving), his certain knowledge of what he had to do once Lennie had stroked her too hard, panicked at her protests and broken her neck.

There was another problem about Sinise’s George. His body language and tone of voice were of the present, not of the period of the story (1937). That is particularly ironic, since he won a Tony Award nomination for his Tom Joad, and he and Malkovitch played George and Lennie at Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theater in 1980. Yet Sinise has been quoted as being unable to relate to Lewis Milestone’s 1939 original film version (which Steinbeck, who had worked on just such a ranch, called ‘a beautiful job’), because it was too much of its own time. His realisation is too much of ours. His checked shirt and trousers and Lennie’s bib and braces seemed the same - garments one might buy at Flip (‘American Clothes’) in Covent Garden. Indeed, something very like this did happen. The publicity accompanying the film tells us that the costume designer, Shay Cunliffe, obtained the ‘authentic-looking costumes through the local flea markets, stock houses and thrift shops which are rich in period items and ideas’.

Putting all this together, I think that there was something wrong with the design of the whole film. It was nostalgic, while Steinbeck was mythical but realistic. If the director was going to update the feel of the film, he should have been consistent and updated the setting, but if he had done that, he would have lost the special sense of workers’ solidarity in the period before unionisation in America. Against the tide of rampant, cruelly exploitative capitalism, fundamental values were thought to be preserved among migrants and in hobo camps and bunkhouses. Americans felt utterly contradictory about this. They celebrated the values and freedom from conventionality of such people, as individuals. They hounded the homeless mass of them and told them to keep on moving, at the same time that they forbade them to become ‘migrants’. Hence Ry Cooder’s lines:

 

How can you keep on movin’ unless you migrate, too?

They tell you to keep on movin’, but migrate you mustn’t do.’

The only reason for movin’ and the reason that I roam

Is to move to a new location and find myself a home.

 

While the society treated those who lost out that way, the culture made Of Mice and Men a Book of the Month Club selection, gave Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath and made classic films of them. His indictment of the American Dream moved the literary world to the point that he received the Nobel Prize in 1962.

Lots of niggles and unfavourable comparisons, then. Nevertheless, the story is powerful, one of the most moving I know, and the denouement is unbearable. It is a tale of friendship between two men, one superficially worldly but actually devoted to his companion, ‘a nice fella’ who means no harm but doesn’t know his own strength and does ‘bad things’ because he likes to touch and stroke soft, warm animals, whether the fur of mice rabbits and puppies or the hair of women. All who see them come to envy the relationship between George and Lennie, because they ‘are not like other guys. We have each other’. Everyone else is desperately lonely for love, companionship, someone to talk to. Each one begins by suspecting the relationship between the little guy and the big one, but their defences are soon overcome by Lennie’s simplicity and George’s protective love for him, a love that finally extends to killing his friend so that no one can hurt him. It is certainly a tragedy, one which shows that friendship is rare and precious. This is especially true between men; all those buddy movies are expressing longings. Steinbeck’s story makes it touchingly clear that the foundations of friendship lie at the most elementary and unsophisticated level of our humanity.

I went away recalling Tom Paxton’s song ‘Ramblin’ Boy’:

 

He was a man and a friend always.

He stuck with me in the bad old days.

He never cared if I had no dough.

We rambled round in the rain and snow.

 

Here’s to you my ramblin’ boy.

May all your ramblin’ bring you joy.

Here’s to you my ramblin’ boy.

May all your ramblin’ bring you joy.

 

In Tulsa town we chanced to stray.

We thought we’d try to work one day.

The boss said he had room for one.

Said my old pal, we’d rather bum.

 

Late one night in a jungle camp,

The weather it was cold and damp.

He got the chills and he got ‘em bad.

They took the only friend I had.

 

He left me there to ramble on.

My ramblin’ pal is dead and gone.

If when we die we go somewhere,

I’ll bet you a dollar he’s ramblin’ there.

 

Here’s to you my ramblin’ boy.

May all your ramblin’ bring you joy.

Here’s to you my ramblin’ boy.

May all your ramblin’ bring you joy.

 

This review appeared in The Psychoanalysis Newsletter no. 11: 20-25, 1993.

Copyright: The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk


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Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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