Of Mice and Men (1939) and Dreaming About Providence

Mice_men_movieposter.jpgBeing 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.

4/5 Stars

Review: East of Eden (1955)

east_of_eden_posterEast of Eden. It was John Steinbeck’s epic work. Showcasing a familial narrative sprawled across his familiar locales of Salinas and Monterey over the turn of the century. But as a film, it rather unwittingly became James Dean’s. He wasn’t even a star yet. He had been on the stage and in a few small roles on television. His performance as Cal Trask was his first film role and the only one that ever got released during his lifetime. As his following two films, both premiered after his untimely death (curiously not all that far away from this film’s setting).

Director Elia Kazan utilized Technicolor and the harrowing perspective of Cinemascope to paint East of Eden with vibrant colors and rather unnerving angles. It’s also true that Kazan, known for evoking intense performances from actors bread on the Method,  was more inspired than perhaps even he realized when he cast Dean. The actor’s body movements. His moody histrionics. His angst emanating from those piercing eyes of his. Even his terminal sadness channeled from his own real-life desire for his father’s love. It’s all within the role of Cal Trask and takes away any doubt about who the focal point of this film is.

And for some, this might be a rather glaring problem with the film. Kazan’s adaptation of the latter half of Steinbeck’s novel focuses on the Cain and Abel dynamic between brothers Cal and Aron as they vie for the affection of their father Adam. For the film to work, each of these characters should be on equal footing. And it’s true that the film is a pendulum of emotional turmoil. It’s positively charged with virulent intensity. First, it’s Cal who is angry and isolated as he tries to discover the whereabouts of the mother he never knew. Meanwhile, his brother Aron (Richard Davalos) is happily in love with his girl and readily defends his brother against any criticism.

But as Cal tries with all his might to win the affection of his father by any means possible, things begin to change. No, his father never exhibits the type of pleasure in him that he so desires, but in his struggles, Cal becomes closer with his brother’s girl — gaining her sympathy.

As time passes, the U.S. is teetering on the brink of the Great War and still, Cal cannot earn his father’s love and his brother becomes more and more jealous. As Cal comes into his own, showing a certain amount of industry and thoughtfulness, it seems Aron becomes more withdrawn and cold. And still, Adam loves his “good son” the best.

James Dean’s performance is spectacularly engaging. I would argue it’s not a morbid sense of curiosity that draws us to him as a tragic hero. But he truly had a special ability to control entire scenes with a glance or some slight movement. Like a Brando or a Clift, he had a certain ability to tap into something that classical actors couldn’t quite touch. Whether it was realism or not is slightly beside the point because they live in characters who are charged with real emotions. It makes Dean’s role as Cal Trask almost palpable. You can feel all that is going on inside of him.

It’s the fact that Dean is so memorable, that brings to light just how much some of the other roles pale in comparison. Davalos does a fine job in his first film, but he cannot balance the scales weighed down by Dean. Raymond Massey on his part is a fairly flat actor not given to anything altogether interesting. It is Dean who elevates Massey’s role in a sense (even though Massey despised the younger actor). Furthermore, Julie Harris is a reputable performer with great heart but she somehow seems miscast (perhaps she’s too old for her role). And Jo Van Fleet gets into the film with a few integral scenes but even she does not have enough time to neutralize Dean.

Perhaps it’s because of the now iconic screen tests of Dean and Paul Newman working off each other, but part of me wonders if Newman in the role of Aron could have done anything to counterbalance Dean. Part of me rejects this hypothesis because Newman never had the same type of melancholy or intensity that Dean was able to muster. He was the likable one. Still, it’s an interesting supposition that in no way takes away from the phenomenal way James Dean burst onto the scene in 1955. He was an explosive supernova of talent — unfortunately for us, he was snuffed out far too quickly.

4/5 Stars

Review: The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Grapes_of_Wrath,_The_-_(Original_Trailer)_-_01The Grapes of Wrath is in special company with a number of literary adaptations where film and source material are both so highly regarded and culturally significant. A few other names spring to mind such as Gone with the Wind, A Streetcar Named Desire, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

However, even more so than all of those stories John Steinbeck’s novel of exodus during the Dust Bowl has a universal ring reverberating for the common man. The Joads are a humble, simplistic Oklahoma clan, but they are only one family out of many who are forced to make the migration out to California. The Dust Bowl and big business push them off their homes and their only hope is the distant promise land of California. They cling to that hope which keeps them going resolutely onward toward the Orange Groves.

Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) who has just gotten out on parole is the figure from which we see the story through. He’s the focal point certainly, but he is defined by all those around him. Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) is the rock of the family, keeping them together, civil, and spirited even when the worst hardships of life hit.

Grandpa dies on the land that he called home. Grandma dies without the company of her lifelong partner. Rosasharn’s husband cuts out when prospects look bad. The family is slowly drained of money, food, gasoline, and hope when they see that the prospects in California are far from good. The book has so much to say politically and socially, using the Joads as a universal parable to reflect the reality of a great many people.

Obviously, John Ford’s film cannot contain all the exposition and commentary of the novel, but he uses the visual medium brilliantly and the Nunnally Johnson’s script fills the screen with all sorts of folks. There are no true villains and the only heroes are those who maintain their humanity and treat others well on a day to day basis. Ma Joad is one, offering food to starving children because it’s the right thing to do. A roadside waitress comes off brusque at first before extending a true act of kindness. You have the genial caretaker (Grant Mitchell) of the Wheat Patch Camp, who is angelic in comparison to so many of the other gruff people the Joads come in contact with.

There’s the scum of the earth. People just doing what they’re told, men just worried about profit, and crooked cops looking to run Okies out. There are those who just grin and bear it to feed their families. They’re part of the problem too and finally, you have Jim Casy and then Tom following in his footsteps.

Former preacher Jim Casy (John Carradine) is a critical figure because he, like so many of the other characters, has lost himself and yet over the course of the film he finds his purpose again. He’s the film’s Christ-like figure (with the initials JC), and yet he seems counter-intuitive to what we expect. But he has the most important things down. He fights for justice and lays down his life for his friends.

Rather like an extensive Dorothea Lange exhibition, cinematographer Gregg Toland shoots the film in beautifully austere and gritty black and white, which feels like a test run for Citizen Kane. However, it remains iconic in its own right with the ways in which it makes the plain, simple, and ordinary cinematic. It’s truly a visual snapshot of Americana with Henry Fonda as our All-American poster boy.

Speaking of Fonda, how could I have lost sight of his character here? Fonda in many ways synonymous with Tom Joad, and I always equate him being a kindly, true blue American. But that’s only part of him. That’s how he acts around his family, but he’s a young man disillusioned by the world. He speaks his mind and is not opposed to fighting back against the injustice. Because that’s what he sees around him. That’s why he kills the man who beats Casy and that’s why he goes out on the road; to be a champion of justice where there isn’t any. It’s an ending more suited for Hollywood at the time than Steinbeck’s original denouement, but it no less poignant or powerful. It doesn’t just stop with the Depression, but it ends up being a whole lot bigger and more universal than that. This is one of the great tales about the human condition, courtesy of one of America’s greatest directors starring one of America’s most legendary actors.

4.5/5 Stars

“I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build, I’ll be there, too.” – Tom Joad

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

472a2-wrathposters141I must admit this film directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda, surprised me in a positive way. This movie seemed like it could potentially be another Citizen Kane  (a movie so inflated with praised that it becomes a letdown when actually viewed). However, The Grapes of Wrath  in fact has a fairly good story adapted loosely from John Steinbeck’s novel. You come out of it feeling the strength of the Joads as well as the inhumanity they face traveling from the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma to California. Still, there is hope that they will endure it all in the end. Fonda gives a solid performance as the plain-speaking, young man Tom Joad. Jane Darwell also gives a very moving performance as his Ma . Some may say this movie has its slow parts but it also has some very good moments that reflect genuine humanity.

4/5 Stars

Lifeboat (1944) – Alfred Hitchcock

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Tallulah Bankhead, the film follows the passengers of a liner who escape in a lifeboat after the ship is sunk. Together they try and survive in order to make it back to civilization. Along the way they must make many difficult decisions. This includes saving the life of a German who sank their boat as well as amputating a man’s leg. Through it all there is ongoing conflict among the people who would normally be genial. However, their circumstances are by no means ordinary. By the end they are so desperate and crazed they seemingly turn against some and fall in love with others. This technical challenge of such a small setting did not disable Hitchcock’s storytelling ability. Written by John Steinbeck, the film’s story is an interesting view of humanity during World War II. This movie also includes Hitchcock’s most ingenious cameo of any of his films.

4/5 Stars

East of Eden (1954)

In his first great film role, James Dean plays a rebellious son named Cal Trask who lives with his father and brother Aron in Salinas. Directed by Elia Kazan from the Steinbeck novel, the movie chronicles Cal’s struggles in the shadow of his favored brother Aron. Despite good intentions at first, Cal is constantly rejected the praise that his brother garners. Thus embittered, he lashes out at his brother, falls for Aron’s girl, and turns their father’s world upside down. With his performance Dean brings alive the character who is himself an allegory for Cain. Julie Harris, Raymond Massey, and Jo Van Fleet all deliver good performances that play off Cal. Overall this is a classic adaption of a classic author. 

 4/5 Stars