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OF MICE AND MEN (1939)

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney Jr., Betty Field
Director:  Lewis Milestone
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Image Entertainment
Features:  None
Length:  106 Minutes
Release Date:  March 13, 2001

Film ****

John Steinbeck has been dubbed “the poor man's Hemingway” by the uneducated or the uninitiated, but those who have looked closer at his works have found him to be one of America's greatest authors.  No other writer so perfectly captured the failure of the American Dream with as much honesty or beauty.  From the tragedy of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath to the comic mishaps of Doc on Cannery Row, Steinbeck explored and exposed the dream as a fraud to the simple people who poured into his native California, only to be left broken, disillusioned, and still searching for that elusive pot of gold.  In Of Mice and Men, the 1939 filmed version of one of his greatest novels, two such characters are at the center of the story. 

As the picture opens, it's hard not to remember that 1939 was arguably the greatest year ever in American film history.  For the first time, cinema finally seemed comfortable with sound, which had kept movies stagnant and stagy for most of the decade.  Here, before we even see credits, we are treated to a fast moving tracking shot of George (Meredith) and Lenny (Chaney) running for their lives from an angry lynch mob.

Lenny, though mammoth in size, is simple and childlike at heart and mind.  He has trouble remembering little things, and doesn't really know right from wrong…he would be a gentle giant, if he only knew his own strength.  George is the friend who travels with him and tries to protect him from the world.  Both men share the American dream:  all they want is a little home and piece of land they can call their own.  They'd work the land, and the land would provide for them.  That's their dream.  Their reality is a constant pilgrimage from one menial job to another, usually ending because Lenny got himself into some kind of trouble he didn't even understand.

The two friends find work in California, but are surrounded by the reminders of the failure of the Dream.  Men who are old, worn out, and have lived their lives trudging from point A to point B.  One even ponders when his aged dog is put of his misery why we don't do the same thing for human beings when it's clear they've got nothing left to give.

George and Lenny cling to their simple dream as long as they possibly can, but in the world Steinbeck saw, such dreams are simply not meant to be.  Lenny is too innocent to exist in such a world, and the world eventually destroys him after he's involved in a terrible accident.  But ironically, the dream never vanishes for Lenny.  It does for George…and the real tragedy is not that Lenny has to die, but that George has to live.

This film adaptation is still the best one by far.  The performances by Meredith and Chaney are impeccably superb:  rich, powerful, and painfully emotional.  Both actors demonstrate an uncanny understanding of their characters, and it is their reality that anchors the story for the audience.  It's too bad the film remains one of the more unnoticed ones from that year, caught in the shadow of towering achievements like Gone With the Wind, Gunga Din, The Wizard of Oz, and ironically, another Steinbeck adaptation, John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath.

But Of Mice and Men is every bit as much of a cinematic jewel as any of these recognized classics, despite its deceptive simplicity and modesty.  No fan of American films can afford to pass up the chance to view this warm and heartbreaking masterpiece.

Video ***1/2

The cover box proclaims this a new film-to-video transfer.  I never saw Image's initial printing of this film on disc, but I have seen this one, and I have to say, it's quite impressive.  The movie shows surprisingly few signs of aging, and the black and white print is remarkably sharp and detailed, with a full rich palate of grayscales.  This is as clean a presentation as I've seen for any pre-1940's movie on DVD, and Image should definitely be proud of their commendable efforts.

Audio **

The audio doesn't fare quite as well…though dialogue is clear and understandable through, this 2-channel mono track suffers from a crackling noise that plays the whole way through.  Many times, it's not distracting, but during the quieter scenes, you can't help but take notice.  As far as older movies go, it's about par for the course, but I wished the sound could have equalled the video.

Features (zero stars)

Nothing.

Summary:

Of Mice and Men is a great American novel and a great American movie.  True to the book and boasting two superb lead performances, no fan of the classics should pass up the chance to see this film on Image's new impressive-looking DVD.