Basement Songs: “Of Mice and Men”

Written by Basement Songs: 52 Saturday Nights, Film

Scott Malchus reflects on the original film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” in this week’s Basement Songs.

The boy’s name was John. He was different from the rest of the kids in my Boy Scout troop. John was mentally handicapped. It was a challenge to communicate with him as his mind worked so much differently than the rest of ours, but with some patience and a positive attitude, small breakthroughs were possible. I know this because he was assigned to my patrol when I was a patrol leader. I can’t recall exactly when it was that I was asked to work with John, but I’m pretty sure it was the 8th grade.

That year was the tail end of my full time commitment to Boy Scouts (until I decided to pursue my Eagle Scout just before I turned 18). Whether or not my Scoutmasters saw some quality in me that helped them decide that I was the right candidate to work with the boy, I don’t know. Perhaps it was some sort of character building exercise. Whatever the case, I was only a little intimidated by the challenge because in my mind, I decided that I would treat John with the same attitude I treated the other guys in my patrol. I would treat him like another kid, albeit a kid who needed a lot of one-on-one time to teach him a square knot.

I don’t claim to have had some extraordinary capacity for human understanding. I don’t claim to have been the nicest or ideal Boy Scout. At that age, I did and said plenty of stupid things to show of my immaturity. However, with John, I looked at this boy and felt as if he deserved the same opportunity to stand at attention, recite the pledge of allegiance, salute the flag and, yes, tie a square knot, like everyone else. This belief came about from my upbringing, watching my father, a teacher, deal with all sorts of personalities and trying to find ways to get through to them. I was also influenced by the 1939 film Of Mice and Men, a movie I’d seen only once, but a movie that had deeply moved me at a young age. The film profoundly effected how I look at people and treat them as human beings.

In the fifth grade, when I was deep into my fascination with horror films and comic books, I noticed that our local UHF station, WUAB, was going to broadcast Of Mice and Men. It stars Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr., were two actors I knew from their later works.  Meredith was The Penguin on my childhood favorite series, Batman, and he also appeared in the role of Mickey, in the Rocky films, perhaps the part he is best remembered for doing. Chaney was in The Wolfman, that classic Universal horror movie that featured the definitive transformation of man to animal (until the 80’s). He would go on to do a string of horror movies, all of which I watched on Saturday afternoons during WUAB’s movie show with “Superhost.”

At that time, there was no Robert Osborne to introduce the films, just a voice over announcer to tell you “And now, Of Mice and Men.” I had no idea that this film was made long before either actor achieved their bigger fame. In fact, with Chaney involved, there was a part of me that thought that maybe the movie had some horror aspects. My interest to see the film also came from seeing the book around the house. My brother must have been reading it in his high school English class.

To watch the film I had to adjourn to the Malchus basement. At that time, if something you wanted to see conflicted with the majority of the household, you were stuck with our old black and white television which had been relegated to the basement once we entered the modern age of color TV. In many ways, basement viewing provided a certain amount of privacy that allowed me to focus on what I was viewing. My preference to watch movies alone may have started during those formative years, as I could laugh as loud as I wanted, squeeze the arm of the yellow rocker when I was scared, or I could cry without feeling embarrassed.

Of Mice and Men is based on the famous novel by Steinbeck, published in 1937. Director Lewis Milestone, who’d won two Academy Awards previously (one for 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front) immediately wanted to direct an adaptation but struggled to get studio backing. After nearly a year, he finally got the cameras rolling, and with Steinbeck’s blessing. Later, the author would praise Milestone’s as “a beautiful job.” I have to agree. Watching the film again last week, I was struck by the compositions of the camera angles. In the 30’s, when camera moves were limited due to limitations in sound recording, Milestone has created dynamic setups that utilized the entire frame of the picture. While his direction of the actors created quiet, subtle performances, he also makes you feel like an active participant in the film, and not just a viewer.

The action takes place during the Great Depression when two itinerant farm hands take a ranch job at a place near Salinas, CA. George is smart, calculating and a little high strung. His cousin, Lennie, is a towering mass of a man who is mentally handicapped, having been kicked in the head by a horse as a child. Lennie could crush any man, but in truth, he needs a protector, someone to shepherd him, and that man is George. The two have roamed around California, taking jobs. Unfortunately, Lennie always seems to get into trouble and they get run out of town. As the film opens, they’re on the run from  mob with guns. Hiding in the weeds of a ditch, those armed men jump over their heads. It’s a harrowing and exciting opening to the movie.

On the ranch of their new job, tension boils beneath the surface. The ranch owner’s son, Curley, is a short, pissed off jackass who is always picking fights. Curley (portrayed by Bob Steele) has brought his new bride, Mae (Betty Field) to the ranch and he’s jealous of any man who even glances in her direction. Since she’s the only woman on the ranch, Curley’s fists are constantly clenched in the black leather gloves he’s always wearing. Mae hates the mundane life of the ranch and longs for the city. Needless to say, this relationship isn’t going to last.

George does his best to avoid Mae and Curley, only concerned with making some dough so that someday, maybe, he can buy a place of his own. This dream is shared by Lennie. The two men imagine living off the land, being their own bosses and being able to do as they please. Lennie, who is simple and likes touching soft things, like furry animals, has George promise that they’ll have rabbits on their farm. Lennie pleading, “Tell me about the rabbits, George,” is one of the most famous catchphrases from any movie. As the story progresses, you gradually realize that Lennie and George are never going to achieve their dream. Their futures only have tragedy written in them.

Meredith and Chaney were virtual unknowns when the film was made. For anyone who only knows the former as the craggy, old man who trained Rocky, it’s almost a shock to see him young and energetic. The same goes for Chaney, whose fame rose from those horror movies I mentioned. He’s a marvel as Lennie. Paired with Meredith, the two deliver heartbreaking performances.

Having not read the book, I had no idea what to expect from the film. It changed my life. The way George treated Lennie, with respect and love, despite his handicap, moved me to tears. Here was a man, a “normal” man, who needed his friend and companion just as much as Lennie, whose mind was that of a child, needed George. Something clicked on that night and I matured just a little bit. All human beings deserve our respect and kindness. That is what I came away with after watching Of Mice and Men. It is just one of Steinbeck’s powerful themes that continues to inspire me.

Perhaps some divine intervention placed me on the floor in front of the TV that night, helping to prepare me for that short period of my life when I was working with John. There are few things that I recall about the boy. However, I can recall the joy in his face when he was able to accomplish some of the small tasks we did together. It was the same kind of joy I saw in Lennie’s eyes during Chaney’s performance. John would be so proud of himself that he’s clap. I clapped, too, sharing in his triumphs and honored to have been a small part of them.

Here’s  a look at our next film:

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