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 Wolf Man (1941)

The-wolfman.jpgEven a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night; May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.

Universal had an impressive catalogue of horror films during the 30s and 40s that integrated gothic and science fiction themes into stories such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Invisible Man. The Wolf Man can be considered part of that same dynasty and it established Lon Chaney Jr. much like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi before him, as a horror film staple. He was the Wolf Man as Karloff was Frankenstein’s Monster and Lugosi was Dracula. That’s how it worked.

What makes many of these films compelling is how they take myth and ground it in a believable reality. Fact and fiction becomes homogenized in a sense and such a world is a wonderful place to draw out horror. Because it can be supernatural, otherwordly, and frightening but it also hits close to home since there is a shred of truth always visible.

In this case, the film opens with the prodigal son, the lumbering, good-natured Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returning to the estate of his well to do father Sir John (Claude Rains). There’s some mention of a dead brother and a hunting accident–some tragic events. This is what brought Larry home and he seems to have patched things up well enough with his dad. As they say, time heals all wounds and it’s easy enough to dismiss it with that.

Anyways, life seems generally good. He’s getting acclimated with the quaint town of Lianwilly and he conveniently spies a girl working in her father’s shop across the way, the pretty ingenue Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) who happens to be already engaged. But that doesn’t stop her from wanting to spend time with him because he really is a giant teddy bear with nary a violent bone in his body.

This is the preexisting world that the story develops only to be thrown off its axis by a telling event. It’s the origin of Larry’s troubles and they begin with a visit to a gypsy caravan, ending with him incurring a bite from a killer wolf. But the implications are much more ominous and deep-seated than that.

Because the trauma begins to eat away at him and his father though the local doctor sees his change of state as merely a psychological issue. Something he can be cured of. He’s only misguided–a little wrong in the head. They fail to see the full manifestations of his new sickness which transform him and lead him off into the night seeking after victims.

But if The Wolfman was simply an excuse to see a beast, it’s hard to gather that the film would have resonated with anyone then or now. In fact, this film is very much comparable to the superhero films we are so accustomed to now. The great installments are made that way by compelling characters and solid storytelling.

Curt Siodmak the brother of famed film noir director Robert Siodmak must be commended on his script which in a mere 70 minutes develops a streamlined story line full of a certain moodiness. To his credit, he helped lay the foundation for a whole legend that has become the standard archetype for any narratives involving werewolves.

The very fact the little poem uttered throughout the film is practically omnipresent, conjured up by so many individuals, works as a fitting harbinger of things to come. Meanwhile, the gypsies played by (Bela Lugosi) in an unfortunately relegated role and Maria Ouspenska, while pigeon-holed takes on the role of mystical soothsayers with ease. Throw in silver bullets, silver-headed walking sticks, and pentagrams and you have all the necessary touchstones (except full moons). Apparently that comes later.

Furthermore, the general atmosphere, time lapse effects, and painstaking makeup work of Jack Pierce all contribute to the heady brew. Perhaps because it is precisely these things that will make some disdain the horror genre with scorn that actually imbue a B-picture such as this a surprisingly engaging aura. It’s very much a part of the mythology that has been built around these monster movies and while meeting our expectations in a sense, that’s only a small, albeit integral part of this story.

Because, everything must ultimately return back to Lon Chaney’s performance as the genial giant Larry Talbot. He’s the complete antithesis of a monster. It’s not what he wants to be and he proves to have such a strong capacity for love. He keeps short accounts and he has a tremendous urge to protect others from harm. It’s innate in him. That’s what makes his ghastly transformation so devastating. Literally no one sees it coming (except Maleva) and you can attribute that to pure ignorance or you could go out on a limb and say it’s because Larry comes off as a genuinely good human being. By the film’s conclusion we feel truly sorry for him and that’s the key

But if we dare take the metaphor further still, I suppose we could say that his curse was a physical manifestation–reflecting the animalistic evil that can be inside of any person.  The stuff that’s churning inside of our being at any given time. That cauldron of dark desires bubbling up. That’s what makes the dividing line between the physical and psychological so interesting in The Wolf Man. Normally they exist in separate spheres but in some ways this film makes them one in the same.

4/5 Stars

 

Review: High Noon (1952)

highnoon1Drums softly beating. A voice mournfully bellowing,”Do not forsake me, oh, my darlin‘.” It can only mean one thing, the beginning of High Noon, a western that has grown near and dear to my heart in the recent years. And yet how can a western of under 90 minutes mesmerize and cause goose bumps to form time after time? That opening ballad sung so wonderfully and folksy by Tex Ritter is one great reason. It’s a mournful dirge of a song which nevertheless draws us into this film, and personally, I cannot help but belt out a few lines now and then (I’m unashamed to say I know the whole song). After all, it’s this song that reflects the story of our main character Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) and reiterations of the tune can be heard throughout for the following hour as we all wait for the noon train.

The song makes it clear that Ben Miller is coming after Kane for sending him to prison. He’s got revenge on the mind and three of his buddies, including his brother, are waiting for his arrival, along with everybody else in town. Meanwhile, the Marshall is about to hang up his badge as it were, because he’s gotten hitched to a pretty young quaker (the estimable Grace Kelly), and they look to settle down with a store in some sleepy town. He’s well-deserving of it after all he’s done and the town stands behind him.

But the news of Miller’s return is no way to start the honeymoon. Still the couple sets off, but Kane turns around realizing he cannot run (I do not know what fate awaits me. I only know I must be brave. For I must face a man who hates me, Or lie a coward, a craven coward; Or lie a coward in my grave).

Thihighnoon4s is the backdrop that he’s trying to scrounge up a posse with. Others getting out of town, some telling him he should get out of town too, and a general commotion about what they should do about the whole mess. There are numerous cross sections and enclaves all with different motives and most importantly excuses. They all turn down a chance to help Kane for one reason or another (even his closest friends). It seems so easy to pass judgment, but then again what would we do in such a situation? In fact, it brings to mind the Hollywood Blacklist which this story was supposed to be an allegory for. This is not just some fictionalized parable, it was mirroring real life to some extent.

What really resonates about this film is the resolve of one man, because when it comes down to it, Kane did not need to stay, he did not need to do what he did, but he stood by his guns, literally, when no one else would stand with him. It’s easy to conform, easy to go with the crowd. It takes real courage to walk out on your own — although the Marshall did have a little help. So whether or not John Wayne thought this film was wholly “Un-American” or not, I think I would have to disagree with him on this one. Maybe what Kane has is reluctant courage, and I could see how the Duke would be disgusted by such a “spineless” individual. But for me, he’s all the more relatable played so aptly by Gary Cooper.

highnoon7It continues to amaze me that a film of this length can have so many wonderful characters who leave an indelible mark on the story. Certainly, you have the hero and the villains, but then we have character actors such as Thomas Mitchell, Harry Morgan, and Lon Chaney Jr. playing some of Kane’s buddies. There’s the gang at the bar and the hotel clerk, who are no friends of the Marshall. There’s his former flame Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado) and his hot-headed deputy (Beau Bridges). The rest are filled out by men, woman, children, town drunks, and churchgoers. Zinnemann does a wonderful thing aside from just using the clock as a plot device and tension builder. He also calls back all these many characters as the noon train comes in with smoke billowing black. The audience and all these people know what that shrill whistle means. Things are going down, and Kane is going to face it all alone.

highnoon2The isolation is so wonderfully conveyed by an aerial shot where the camera moves up to show the stoic Marshall standing in the middle of a ghost town. No people around and no one showing their faces. Then of course, when it’s all over, the floodgates open and all the folks rush into the center of town. Fittingly,  Kane drops his tin star in the dirt in disgust as the refrains of Tex Ritter’s ballad continue.

Put High Noon up against other films and it could be criticized as nothing more than a western, but perhaps that’s why I like it. I cannot help but gravitate towards it. In some ways, it reminds me of growing up and it allows me to forget about any sort of deeper meaning for an instant so I can be fully enraptured with this story, this song, and these characters. It’s a worthy incarnation of the mythic west, that also leaves a little space for some humanity.

People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe because down deep they don’t care. They just don’t care.” – Martin Howe (Lon Chaney Jr.)

5/5 Stars

High Noon (1952)

14bd7-high_noon_posterThis may not be the greatest film of all time, but it is certainly one of the greatest westerns gifted to us so generously by Fred Zinnemann. It tells a very simple story, yet it is, in fact, so powerful simply, because of the hero it depicts. In its time it also served as a condemning allegory of the finger pointing going on in Hollywood.

*May Contain Spoilers

The film tells the story of Marshall Will Kane, who is willing to face his foes even when no one else will help him. Gary Cooper plays the newlywed lawman, who must flee town or face the killer coming on the noon train. He resolves to do just that, despite the pleas of his loving wife (Grace Kelly). The sheriff scrambles against the clock to get help. However, no one is brave enough to face the enemy with him. Even with the odds against him, he faces them in a showdown. Cooper is outgunned, but not outmatched — heroically prevailing.

This film is so powerful, because it is full of human emotions, and it feels so real since the events unfold almost in real time. The somber ballad, sung by Tex Ritter, also helps to create the mood right from the opening credits. In fact, I must admit that multiple times I have found myself humming or crooning the words, but then again I suppose it makes sense since the song is woven into the very fabric of the film.

The score by Dimitri Tiomkin utilizes the tune throughout to complement the images of the town. In that respect, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'” is not just a song, but an important piece of this story. It is easy to forget the supporting players since Cooper often steals the show. Nevertheless, there’s Lloyd Bridges, Grace Kelly, Katy Jurado, Thomas Mitchell, Lon Chaney Jr.,  Harry Morgan, and even a young Lee  Van Cleef. Many have pasts with Kane that we cannot expect to fully know. All we can understand is the here and now that causes a person to weigh their options, and either follow or go against their conscience. Kane and then his bride both did what they thought was right even when others would not follow suit.

It struck me how simple the story is, and yet on the other side, it is a complex allegory that critiques humanity. Will Kane is a man, who helped make the town what it is, but when trouble comes and the odds are bad no one is willing to help him. Besides the obvious positives like a good story and a heroic protagonist, this film stands out because it feels so human. Here we are as an audience watching the events unfold almost minute for minute. Then we see the various town folk and their fear of getting involved, and to make matters worse a lot of them are Kane’s very good friends. It makes us question what we would have done in their position. Because some of them were obviously good people, who were scared to be involved. Of course, during this time McCarthyism was prevalent and it is suggested that this film alluded to that. However, whatever you think it is still unquestionable that High Noon is a powerful film, a love story, and at its simplest a classic western.

5/5 Stars