1939's 'Of Mice and Men' Is a Timeless Classic

Updated on February 11, 2019
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Ash has a bachelor's in English Lit. She loves analyzing fiction and obsessing over books, film, and television.

I love classic films and Of Mice and Men is one of my favorite, right up there with A Streetcar Named Desire and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The first time I saw it was about six years ago while I was attending college. I decided to write a paper about the film and read the book for good measure. My thesis was that a classic film simply can't be remade.

Of Mice and Men is one of those films. It can't be remade. Period. And indeed, the 1992 remake was pretty bad, watering down the film's more dramatic depths with unnecessary sex scenes and other tripe.

George was played by Burgess Meredith of "Rocky" fame, while Lenny was played by Lon Chaney Jr., best known for a number old monster films, such as The Wolf Man.

Probably the best thing about the film is George and Lenny's friendship. Their platonic love is the sort of heartwarming fluff you just don't see in today's gory, sex-ridden films.

According to the book, George and Lenny are not related, as this is a lie George tells to dodge suspicion once they reach the ranch. They are just really great friends who love and look out for each other. This becomes very apparent once they arrive at the ranch and the boss' son, Curley (Bob Steele), immediately starts picking on Lenny.

Curley is the epitome of the misogynistic creep. Consumed by his fragile sense of masculinity, he is small, temperamental, and draped in insecurities. He makes working at the ranch Hell for his workers. About twenty minutes into the film, and we see him deck innocent Whit (Noah Beery Jr.), a young and likable ranch hand, under the assumption that he was sleeping with his wife.

Imagine working in a place where your boss' son can punch you in the face anytime he wants! And Curley is like that because he's so insecure, he fears his wife having autonomy. A woman making the choice to cheat is "emasculating" because women aren't people with freewill. Women are things to be controlled, and one that acts on her own is "out of control" and serves as evidence of the man's "weakness" given his inability to control her.

. . . Sigh. Society is a mess. It was a mess then and it's still a mess now.

Curley is the sort of man who will marry a woman just to have access to sex and some sort of "evidence" of his manhood -- not because he, you know, loves her and loves being with her and has any interest in her as a person.

No. Curley sees Mae (Betty Field) as an object to be owned, a thing, property to protect from other men. He's constantly paranoid that she's going to stray because he knows he's a crap-person, that she deserves better, and that any woman with sense would leave him.

People argue that Steinbeck wasn't a misogynist, but a man doesn't need to commit violence toward women to see us as less than human beings. Misogyny is more than violence, my friends.

Steinbeck makes zero effort to humanize Mae or have us sympathize with her in any way. In the book, she doesn't even have a name and is simply referred to as "Curley's Wife."

This was done because Book Mae is a plot device. She doesn't have a personality, dreams, or desires of her own. In the book, she exists entirely to be the thing that propels the story. The conflict is built around her, and the narrative blames her -- not Lenny -- for the dramatic climax. In the book, Lenny is never held accountable for his actions by the other characters, and all of it is the fault of Curley's Wife for simply existing.

On top of that, Curley's Wife is the only woman in the book. Who a writer writes about says a lot about who they see as human and worthy of full characterization. Mae was apparently not worth the depth and breadth that Steinbeck gave minor male characters like Crooks and Candy.

This is sexist any way you slice it. But because Steinbeck was a good writer, people will pretend otherwise. I'm not calling for Steinbeck's books to be banned or something drastic. Read the damn book all you want. I just wish people would acknowledge the truth instead of pretending.

Thankfully, the 1939 movie version actually takes the time to make Mae into a fully fleshed out character who we can sympathize with. Throughout the movie, we learn Mae's name, we learn why she married a jerk like Curley, we learn about her father's death, we learn that she is destitute and has no where to go as a result of a patriarchal society where women must rely on marriage to survive.

Even while the movie takes the time to make Mae human, fully dimensional, and far more than a plot device, it's the other characters in the story -- not the narrative itself -- that behave in a sexist manner toward her. Curley treats Mae like a trophy wife and a free sex dispenser, Candy calls Mae "a pack of trouble" just for being lonely and existing, then blames her for Lenny's actions at the end of the film, and George nearly smacks Mae after comparing her to a pebble that got in his way.

To all these men, Mae is an annoying thing, an obstacle, and not a person, and when they treat her as such, the movie itself admonishes them -- almost as if it's admonishing Steinbeck himself.

This is often done through Curley's father, who points out that Mae "ain't doin' no harm" and how there aren't other women around she can talk to (because Steinbeck didn't write them in). He is also the one to stop George from hitting Mae.

Mae herself has a line at the end of the film where she points out how no one seems to care "how she has to live."

I mean, it's reasonable that they would stay away from Mae because of Curley, but none of them seem to want to acknowledge that Curley is the one in the wrong, not Mae.

Probably one of my favorite things about the story is the foreshadowing.

Candy (Roman Bohnen) is an old ranch hand who lost his hand years ago and was demoted to a swamper. In a few years, he'll be out on the street with no where to go, unable to get more work. His only friend in the world is his dog.

Carl (Granville Bates) is a ranch hand who hates the smell of Candy's old dog and wants to be rid of it. He badger's Candy for the first half of the film about shooting the dog. The other ranch hands pity Candy enough that they try to distract Carl from the conversation -- but Carl is not to be distracted and pushes the matter until he gets his way.

Candy is devastated as his dog is taken out back and shot in the head. It is an incredibly tense moment, underscored by George's awkward and insensitive babbling about Lenny's pup.

As the gunshot rings out and as Candy curls up crying on his bed, the other ranch hands realize that they will be like Candy one day -- old, used up, no place to go, nothing in the world but their dog, which will never live as long.

Slim (Charles Bickford), the unofficial leader of the ranch hands, is so disturbed by the incident that he leaves the bunkhouse entirely, under the pretense of caring for a horse's shoe.

Candy, meanwhile, sees the death of his dog as a foreshadowing of his own eventual death. In reality, the dog's death was actually a foreshadowing of Lenny's death. Lenny is even shot with Carl's Luger -- the same gun.

There is also foreshadowing in Lenny's complete lack of self control.

While defending himself against Curley, Lenny gets carried away and breaks every bone in his hand.

Later, while George is in town, Lenny attacks Crooks (Leigh Whipper), an elderly and disabled old man who works on the ranch. He could have easily hurt Crooks had the man not quickly talked him down. (Incidentally, Crooks himself also serves as a foreshadowing when he accurately predicts that George, Lenny, and Candy's plans for a place of their own will never come to pass.)

Before these two incidents, Lenny has already attacked another woman on another ranch -- fortunately, without killing her.

Toward the end of the film, Lenny kills his pup. Just one more offense on his list of "bad things" before he commits murder against a human being.

All the violent acts Lenny commits are a build up for the ultimate climax at the end of the film. It's so masterfully done, the audience should have seen it coming a mile away. And indeed, George even says he "shoulda knowed it" when he discovers the body of Curley's wife.

Probably one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the movie comes at the end (sorry, Candy's dog is the worst for me) when George has to shoot Lenny. This must be done in order to protect Lenny from being beaten and tortured by Curley, who doesn't care about Mae at all and really just wants revenge for having been humiliated.

Unlike Candy -- who allowed someone who hated his dog to kill it -- George must do the loving thing and spare Lenny from what is upon him.

Burgess Meredith really brings the scene home. The way he stands there hunched and miserable, unwilling to do what must be done. Meanwhile, Lon Chaney Jr. is perfect in his innocent and happy delivery. He is so unaware that George has come with a gun, and it would never occur to him that George might ever hurt him. He is completely trusting of George, innocent as a dog -- a fact which makes ultimately gunning him down all the harder.

By the end of the film, George has been forced to shoot his best friend, his only friend. He has now become Candy, destined to drift from ranch to ranch alone, working himself into an early grave while slaving for others, never having a home of his own.

I'm not a big fan of sad endings, but I do appreciate them when done well, and this classic film was done beautifully -- from the foreshadowing to the dialogue to the characterization.

It can not be redone, and no remake has succeeded yet.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Ash


Submit a Comment
  • ocfireflies profile image


    20 months ago from North Carolina

    Welcome! Interesting read. Well-written. Thought-provoking. The kind of piece that makes me want to share a cup of coffee and discuss further. Thank You! And, yes! I am a huge John Steinbeck fan. OF MICE AND MEN, in my opinion, is a classic. Big smiles!

    Blessings Always,

    ocfireflies aka Kim


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