George (Burgess Meredith) and Lennie (Lon Chaney Jr) are two travelling workmen on the run from a lynch mob. When they manage to shake off their pursuers, it's time to start again, and George secures work permits for them both. Lennie is simple-minded, you see, and relies on George to get him through life, but he has a knack of getting them both into trouble. He doesn't mean to, it's the way things turn out over and over again, not that this stops them from moving on every time in the hope that their luck will turn. They both have a dream of their own farm - will it come true for them this time?
The film that launched a hundred Tex Avery cartoons, Of Mice and Men was adapted from John Steinbeck's classic novel by Eugene Solow, an improbable film from comedy expert Hal Roach's studios. Unlike many films taken from revered sources, this version faithfully evoked the unadorned tragedy of the original story and effectively captured its essence, thanks to sympathetic direction from Lewis Milestone and some excellent performances. Burgess Meredith had played George on the stage many times, and had the part perfected, but considering the type of work he would largely end up in it was Lon Chaney Jr who really proved he had a great performance in him.
Such a pity it was at the start of his career, and he would quickly be typecast in horror and western roles that didn't stretch him but rather placed him in the shadow of his father. As Lennie, he is heartbreaking, a sweet natured manchild who doesn't know his own strength, all to his cost in the cruel world he is trapped in. Only George is there to help him through, but alas George can't always be there to keep his charge out of trouble. After they escape the mob, the pair end up on a bus to a new ranch, though the driver lets them out ten miles before their stop when George gets impatient with him.
So they take the time to camp out under the stars by a river, and George tells Lennie that if he should get into trouble again, this is the place to run to and hide. Lennie doesn't remember much, but he recalls everything George tells him, including their dream of owning their own farm sometime in the future where Lennie can breed rabbits: he does love to pet soft things, like the dead bird he has in his pocket which his friend exasperatedly throws away. When they reach the ranch, Lennie recognises right away that it's not a good place for them to be, but like everyone there, they need the money.
Everyone in the film is frustrated in one way or another, but George's plans give hope to a couple of the men there: Candy (Roman Bohnen), an elderly worker who keeps an equally elderly dog which the others want him to put down even though it will crush him, and Crooks (Leigh Whipper) a marginalised black worker whose cynicism is tempered by his wish to join George's establishment. But uh-oh, here comes trouble in the shape of Curley's wife (Betty Field) who would be a character coloured by misogyny if it weren't for the heartfelt emotions of a woman throwing away her best years when she wants to leave and see life. Son of the boss Curley (Bob Steele) is a nasty piece of work who takes an instant dislike to almost everyone, but Lennie in particular; it's a measure of the film's bleakness that we can sense the painfully impending doom even as the characters prepare for better times. But the conclusion is, a lot of the time dreams don't come true, especially during the Depression. Music by Aaron Copland.
[Arrow's Region 2 DVD has no extras, but the film is a classic of dejection if you want to feel miserable.]
Born Lev Milstein, Lewis Milestone emigrated from Russia at the end of World War One, where he broke into film-making by directing training films for the US army. After several years working as an assistant director, Milestone was given his first directing gig by Howard Hughes, and in 1928 won the Oscar for Best Director of a Comedy Picture at the first ever Academy Awards for Two Arabian Knights. Over the next three decades, Milestone directed such classics as All Quiet on the Western Front, The Front Page, Of Mice and Men, Pork Chop Hill, A Walk in the Sun, plus the enjoyably rubbish rat packer Ocean's 11.