Saturday, September 5, 2009

1939 - Of Mice and Men

It's the Labor Day weekend here in the United States and last night, my darling wife Kat and I attended a party with some friends. To make a long story short, I got a little intoxicated. Don't panic, I didn't embarrass myself (at least, I don't think I did) but I did suffer from some crazy dreams last night, no doubt induced by that hazy dehydration the human brain experiences when its owner has consumed too much alcohol and not enough water. I don't remember the details exactly, but I'm sure it had something to do with the films of 1939. A sign that I'm too obsessed with this project? No, probably just a sign that I shouldn't drink so much.

Yesterday, before the imbibing began, I reached the halfway point of the 1939 Best Picture competition when I watched...

Of Mice and Men
Lewis Milestone
Eugene Solow
(based on the novel by John Steinbeck)
Burgess Meredith, Betty Field, Lon Chaney, Jr., Charles Bickford, Roman Bohnen, Bob Steele
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
0 wins

Adapted from the classic John Steinbeck novella, Of Mice and Men follows two freelance ranch workers, George and Lennie, as they begin work on a ranch near Soledad, California, during the Great Depression. Lennie is intellectually challenged and George takes care of him, perhaps out of selfless pity or perhaps out of selfish opportunity. They both have the grand old dream of owning their own ranch one day, and Lennie constantly badgers George to tell him stories of what those liberated days will be like, living off the fat of the land. In particular, Lennie enjoys the part where he gets to tend to soft, cuddly bunny rabbits. And these plans (best laid ones, you might say) are very close to becoming reality. An old, one-handed ranch worker named Candy has offered to throw his savings into the pile, so the trio would only need one month's more wages to be able to purchase their dream property.

When I view movies for this project, I keep a small notepad by my side to jot down a few ideas, in order to assist the writing of the blog. By the time the words "The End" appeared for Of Mice and Men, I glanced down at my pad to discover a mostly white page. Not very beneficial for my blog, but it clearly means I was engrossed. And I think I know why. Irresepective of the captivating story, this film possesses some very modern filmmaking conventions, considering the year it was produced. It's subtle, but Academy Award winning director Lewis Milestone uses techniques that modern audiences may recognise, setting Of Mice and Men slightly apart from other films of its era. This film may not be considered the most pioneering of its time, but I simply felt a little less distant from it as compared to its contemporaries. It contains one of the first pre-credits sequences in cinema history, an especially common practice today, and Milestone intelligently sprinkles several slow crane or dolly shots throughout as well.

As it has a number of times for 1939's Best Picture race, the discussion once again turns to the adaptation of novels into films. Not surprising since eight of the ten nominees are based on written works of prose and one more on a play. The difference with Of Mice and Men may be due to its source material being a novella rather than a full length novel. As a consequence, it doesn't seem to encounter the same issues plaguing some of the other films. (Although, Gone With the Wind's almost four-hour running time perhaps sets that film apart, as well, for an entirely different reason.) Of Mice and Men is a perfectly paced drama, with the right amount of action and tension.

Finally, the main reason Of Mice and Men works so well is its genuinely compelling story. The characters draw us in with their identifiable foibles. Even Lennie, to whom we may not immediately relate, has a dream that is universal, that of a better life. In fact, all the characters share similar passions and hopes, and they all seek comfort in others to reassure them that their dreams are not complete fantasies, that they can plausibly be obtained. And then there's the chilling finale, but rather than reveal too much, I'll merely encourage those who have yet to see Of Mice and Men to discover the ending for themselves.

To return to my fondness for pop culture, the two main stars in Of Mice and Men, who, incidentally, both deliver fine performances, are both far better known for other projects. As George, you will probably recognise Burgess Meredith as either Rocky's trainer or The Penguin in the campy 1960s TV version of Batman. Playing Lennie is Lon Chaney, Jr., who, despite having several dramatic roles, became most famous for his portrayals of monsters, in particular the Wolf Man, in the horror movies of the 40s, 50s and 60s.

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