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

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

strangelove1“I don’t like anybody pushing me around. I don’t like anybody pushing you around. I don’t like anybody getting pushed around.”  Van Heflin as Sam Masterson

Lewis Milestone never quite eclipsed the heights of All Quiet on the Western Front. Still, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is brimming with some engaging performances. Although it is, at times, more of a  melodrama than noir, there is still merit in Robert Rossen’s script. When it does not falter with didacticism, the film has a certain twisted, deep-seated emotion that runs through it. Barbara Stanwyck is the one at the center of it all, as the title suggests.

The film begins in 1928 with three children. The assumption is that these three individuals will become of greater importance later on. After that fateful evening, one would be left without any family, one would leave for good, and one would be left in the perfect position to rise up the ranks. These opening moments boasts spiraling staircases, thunder, the pounding orchestration of Miklos Rozsa, and a complete gothic set-up.

strangelove317 or 18  years later a full-grown Sam Masterson (Van Heflin) decides to return to his old stomping grounds, Iverstown, on a whim. He’s surprised to learn that the “little scared boy on Sycamore street” is now District Attorney (Kirk Douglas). And he’s now married to Martha Ivers (Stanwyck). She and Sam had something going long ago, but he’s all but forgotten it by now. He’s made a living as a gambler who has a pretty handy dandy coin trick, but really Heflin’s character could be anything.

He meets a sultry, smoky-voiced Lizabeth Scott with the pouting face. For those unfamiliar, I would liken her to a Lauren Bacall-type, although she was less well-known and ultimately got typecast in noir roles. Here Scott’s “Toni” Marachek is an often despondent woman who just got out on probation.

strangelove2We don’t actually see Barbara Stanwyck’s face until 30 minutes into the film, but it doesn’t matter. She as well as Kirk Douglas (in his screen debut), leave an impression right off the bat. They are a married couple alright, but she seems to hold the keys to the kingdom, so to speak. All her power is propping him up as he makes his political rise. Perhaps there’s more going on here, however.

From its outset, Martha Ivers looks to be a tale with two threads that slowly begin to intertwine, bringing together some old pals and acquainting some new ones. When Sam wanders into the lives of Martha and Walter O’Neil, it’s putting it lightly that they’re taken aback. The district attorney is good at putting on a face for an old boyhood chum. His wife, on the other hand, is not about to hide her excitement in seeing her old flame.

However, they both think he has an agenda, misreading the twinkle in his eye as intent to blackmail, for a payoff after what he saw all those years ago. But that’s just it. Only we know that he didn’t see anything. Martha Ivers slips up, caught between love, hate, and a suffocating life. She has so much power and yet so little. So much affection and yet so much bitterness.

strangelove5Honestly, although Stanwyck is our leading lady, it’s quite difficult to decide whose film this really is. Van Heflin and Barbara Stanwyck are at its core, but then again, Scott and Douglas do a fine job trying to upstage them. There’s a polarity in the main players, meaning Stanwyck and Heflin have the power, and the other two are the subservient man and woman respectively. However, the film really becomes a constant tug-of-war. Douglas is not just a spineless alcoholic. There’s an edge to him. Scott seems like a softy and yet there’s an incongruity between her persona and that prison rap that hangs over her. Heflin seems like the one relatively straight arrow because as we find out, Stanwyck is fairly disturbed. She’s no Phyllis Dietrichson and that becomes evident in yet another climatic conflict involving a gun. But she’s still demented, just in a different way.

3.5/5 Stars

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

c7ab8-all_quiet_on_the_western_front_1930_film_posterDirected by Lewis Millstone and starring an ensemble cast headed by Lew Ayres, this archetypal anti-war film based on the novel of the same name, begins with a group of school boys during the dawn of WWI. This group of patriotic German youth is hungry for adventure and the glories of war. 

Then they arrive and begin their training which causes them to despise their commanding officer and they also lose some enthusiasm. It gets worse when they head to a combat zone and join a company of veteran soldiers without any food to eat. They finally head to the front and after a day in the trenches their number is fewer. 

Trench warfare proves to be hardly as glamorous as it seems with constant bombardment, rats, lack of food, and most of all the shedding of blood. One of their pals loses his leg and his boots, then slowly more get knocked off or wounded. Now Paul is one of the only ones left but after a bout of hand to hand combat with a French soldier he becomes even more disillusioned. Paul too gets wounded and is sent home on furlough to his family but he finds his friends and family have no concept of the gritty, grimy reality of war. He returns to the lines one more time and a few of his old comrades are still alive. 

However, in a fateful moment Paul reaches out for a butterfly in his trench and just like that he is dead. The last of this school room full of young, naïve boys is now dead or injured. That is the horrible scar left by not only by WWI but any such conflict. 

Despite the fact that all the main German characters are played by Americans, this film has a sharp sense of realism that extends all the way through the film. Even though many of these young actors were unknowns and are not well known today, together they made a powerful ensemble. The themes of this film were so powerful in fact that it was banned in Germany.

5/5 Stars