Being the ignorant sot that I am, I needed to reacquaint myself with the allusion in Steinbeck’s title, plucked from Scottish poet Robbie Burns. The Scottsman wrote, to the effect that, the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go awry. This is not cynicism but merely an observation on the realities of life, which could come straight out of Ecclesiastes. The only positive response might be clinging to hope even more resolutely and “dreaming about providence” to quote a favorite tune of mine.
John Steinbeck had a gift for bringing a slice of America, so very personal to his own experience, to a broader audience. Namely, the worlds of Monterey, Salinas, and to a broader extent, the itinerant blue-collar working man. One can rarely consider an author an overnight success, but he does have the benefit of being a prominent literary figure in his own time. One only needs to look at how soon after films were made in the wake of his most acclaimed works.
While The Grapes of Wrath and John Ford’s accompanying film remains the benchmark (East of Eden, at least in cinematic terms is a slighter weaker case), Of Mice and Men is a fine endeavor in its own right, despite more meager origins.
One could begin with Lewis Milestone who certainly cannot claim the same reverence as John Ford in the pantheon of directors and yet even if All Quiet on The Western Front was his only movie, surely it would be enough. Of Mice and Men is by no means a shabby picture to add to his filmography, in spite of casting mostly unknowns and minor actors all across the board. It probably serves his purposes all the better.
Burgess Meredith would become a fairly big name — also in part to his marriage to Paulette Goddard — but this was his big shot in a highly coveted role. He has the acumen and the heart to really step into the part of George. But he functions as part of a battery. He must work off his costar.
Lon Chaney Jr. comes out of an acting tradition, but this is the role setting his career in motion and subsequently typecasting him. His characterization of Lennie comes off so seamlessly — the simple-minded charm matched with ox-like brawn — obsessed as he is with small critters that he can pet. He’s so innocent and helpless in one sense. The overt contrast between his body and mind is what makes the character. He needs George as his protector.
It works as a unique strain of symbiosis. While George is the constant keeper of his simple friend, Lennie provides not only strength but an innocent conception of the world. He is part of the reason George is never completely jaded; it’s this unwavering supply of child-like contentment in all things.
He’s continually pestering George to recount their dream: how one day they will get a little stake for themselves so they can live off the fat of the land together. The idea of settling down on their own acreage, making their own hours, and moving at a leisurely pace gives hope to the travelers. In fact, it seems no coincidence, since Steinbeck often evokes other texts, this vision might as well be plucked out of Genesis; it’s a New Eden, a paradise they look to find.
Of course, there is the actual cold, hard reality. The two workers meet the boss and his son Curly — a terse pipsqueak with a chip on his shoulder. He jealously guards his trophy wife (Betty Field) and yet never does much of anything with her. It’s a vicious cycle. He doesn’t want anyone getting near her, and she’s desperately fishing for any kind of attention.
Another member of the workforce is Slim (Charles Bickford), a hard-bitten fellow who maintains a soft spot in his heart, raising up animals and giving Lennie a thrill by way of a newborn puppy.
But it is an unceremonious and unsophisticated lifestyle. The neanderthal eating rituals of the bosses and bunkhouse crew perfectly reflect the continuous distaste the lady of the manor has for such a life. Meanwhile, one old timer’s beloved mutt is taken out and shot to put him out of his misery. It becomes a rather ominous image reflecting what man is ready to do when creatures and things have outlasted their usefulness.
The latter half of the story must belong to Lennie and his inherent innocence. First, he is ambushed in the bunkhouse by Curly over an arbitrary Spat. On the urging of everyone, he defends himself, all but crushing the squat man’s hand. He’s almost incapable of controlling his own strength and as a frequent sufferer of undiagnosed cute aggression, these traits can only lead to one end.
Another unextraordinary evening Lennie is left alone to divert himself with his pup as he unwittingly crosses de facto racial divides by chatting up the in-house ranchhand Crooks (Leigh Whipper). We already have portents for future lightning rods of drama even as word of the boys’ ambitions for their own piece of land trickles out. Thereafter the real scoop on how Curly busted his hand comes to the surface. It was no thresher.
What strikes me about Of Mice and Men is how it manages to be an ode to the common man. It memorializes those who work their entire lives through the hardship and the drudgery. Where the days become monotonous and there is a necessity to dream because it provides something to live for.
Memories you can look back on fondly work much the same, dogs who give a bit of comfort, or maybe a bit of alcohol and a night on the town. As humans we use these things to insulate ourselves from the world and to bring comfort and some type of feeling, even meaning, into our lives. It’s fuel for when the going gets tough.
Lennie is the most obvious proponent because he is so single-minded. His whole existence revolves around his one desire to tend his own colony of rabbits, constantly fearful anything he does might make George angry and get him in trouble.
But everyone else, though they might be sharper and they might be more perceptive — their desires more complex — they still share this instinctual want of comfort and something beyond the existence they can find on the ranch or in a bunkhouse.
Even the wife, constantly looking for attention — companionship of any sort — is taken with her former dreams of being carted off to Hollywood where she can wear all the fancy clothes, get her picture in the paper, and get on the radio for free. This is her version of the same thing.
Perhaps it does not even exist as such — at least not on this earth — and certainly not in Steinbeck’s Depression-era, but that doesn’t make the hoping any less important. There’s the possibility it’s still out there.
Of course, the climactic point of no return in the novella is no different here. The one moment Lennie is not monitored by George, he does something regrettable. Growing panicky in the presence of another human being and not knowing his own strength, he commits an irrevocable act.
Again, it highlights the tragedy of Lennie as there is no malice in his actions, but the results call for retribution nonetheless. He is so innocent and simple and yet he is about to be hunted like an animal. In one last-ditch effort, George looks to protect his hapless friend from the fallen world around him. The paradoxes run deep because in this utterly harsh and unfeeling life, it is George who does something equally harsh. The difference being, he comes out of a place of love.