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Image Entertainment presents
Of Mice and Men (1939) (1939)

"Tell about the rabbits."
- Lennie Small (Lon Chaney Jr.)

Review By: Jeff Ulmer   
Published: March 22, 2001

Stars: Burgess Meredith, Betty Field, Lon Chaney Jr.
Other Stars: Charles Bickford, Roman Bohnen, Bob Steele, Noah Beery Jr., Oscar O'Shea, Granville Bates, Leigh Whipper, Leona Roberts, Helen Lynd, Barbara Pepper, Henriette Kay, Eddie Dunn
Director: Lewis Milestone

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (extremely depressing content)
Run Time: 01h:46m:16s
Release Date: August 26, 1998
UPC: 014381457124
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

"But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain
For promis'd joy."

Excerpt from To a Mouse, on turning up her Nest with the Plough by Robert Burns, November, 1785

Back in the hazy remembrances of my high school education, the study of the works of John Steinbeck is a task I recall enduring with much distaste, not as much for the content we were reviewing but the nature in which it was inflicted upon us. Though I believe I managed to avoid Steinbeck's landmark The Grapes Of Wrath during my youth, his 1937 Of Mice and Men and that same year's The Red Pony stick out amongst the studies of literature class. It is somewhat ironic that I would choose to review a title that I had such an aversion to as a teenager, and even more so that I would remember the events as they unfolded as if I had only read it yesterday.

The story takes place in the Salinas Valley of California, where Steinbeck was born in 1902. As with most film adaptations, there is a fair degree of artistic license taken, and it begins with the opening frames of the film, which while departing from the novel, invoke an immediate foreboding and foreshadowing of things to come, with black clouds moving in to cover the sun as two men are seen fleeing and eluding a lynch mob by hiding in a creek. We are introduced to George Milton (Burgess Meredith) and the lumbering and simple Lennie Small (Lon Chaney Jr.), two migrant farm workers who have abruptly left their previous employ in Weed, and are en route to a new ranch south of Soledad. As the pair make camp for the evening before heading to their new job in the morning (where the novel opens), the relationship between these two characters is set. Lennie is not too bright, and his fascination with soft and pretty things was the reason they left their previous job in such a hurry. When George discovers that Lennie is keeping a dead bird in his pocket so he can pet it during their travels, he is angered, and hurls the creature into the pond, explaining that this is why Lennie keeps getting into trouble. At fireside, we have the pair's dream of the future revealed, in which they free themselves from their toils as hired hands, own their own place and reap the rewards of their labor. All they need is a little more money to make the dream a reality, as long as Lennie can keep out of trouble in their new job. It is not to be. Trouble comes in many forms, the first of which is the boss' son, Curly, a petite man whose pride and jealousy make him hostile towards anyone bigger than he, and Lennie proves a fine target for bolstering his machismo. Curly's wife (Betty Field—given the name Mae for the film) is also trouble, bored with her husband and life on the ranch, and looking for company in the farm hands, something that fuels Curly's ire. The two men try to fit in without creating a stir, and when the aging and crippled farmhand, Candy, overhears George and Lennie discussing their future, he offers his life savings to be part of it, fearing his own future when his usefulness diminishes. The funds bring the dream closer than ever, but Lennie's adoration of a young puppy will bring tragedy, and force matters to their irrevocable conclusion, when George's friendship is put to the ultimate test.

Released the same year as Gone With The Wind, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and The Wizard Of Oz, Of Mice And Men was nominated for four Oscars¨ including Best Picture. It is a story of the emptiness of the American Dream. In spite of their aspirations for the future, in Steinbeck's view of reality, the boundaries of class and race can't be overcome, and any hope that exists is an illusion, which will keep each of the characters trapped in their life of hardship and suffering until their deaths. There is no silver lining, and there isn't a happy character in the film save for Lennie, whose only joy comes in the form of the dream of his future or the cuddly things that will be his downfall. George is burdened by Lennie, and despite his planning and consideration, is ultimately doomed to failure. Candy (Roman Bohnen) recognizes his aging and the worthlessness it will mean. Curly (Bob Steele) is destined by his fear of ridicule for his size to perpetual unhappiness, and his wife hates him, while she, herself, is locked in a plight brought on by fleeing the situation of living with her mother. Crooks (Leigh Whipper), the well read negro stable hand, is destined to live in solitude, solely due to his skin color. The only solace any of them have is their fantasies, but Steinbeck makes sure these are never realized.

While the story is utterly depressing, the performances supporting it are well played and cast, with each character given careful consideration, and the cinematography carries the piece wonderfully. Director Lewis Milestone, who coerced Hal Roach Studios to back the picture to settle a legal dispute, did a great job conveying the mood of the novel to the screen, despite some liberties in the details, which Steinbeck approved. This included expanding the number of locations for staging the work, and the substitution of a dead bird in the opening scene for the originally drafted mouse—I'm not certain why this change was made, given the obvious tie in with the title of the film. Key areas of the script are given excellent treatment, from the agonizing delay during the killing of Candy's dog (have tissues handy), to the final climax where the fates of the characters are sealed. It is a powerful tale of friendship and sacrifice, and the eternal search for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Of Mice And Men looks impressive for a film of this vintage. The package indicates this was a new film transfer from original 35mm nitrate elements, and it shows. Tonal range of the black & white image is well represented, with solid blacks and well defined grayscale. Print defects are minimal, as are dust and dirt. There are the odd anomalies here and there, but as a whole, this is a very good presentation.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Audio is presented in two-channel mono, which seems to originate from two or three sources, due to distinct qualities of each one. Dialogue is easily discernable at all times, however the tonal characteristic has some changes, with some parts not sounding quite as full as others. During some segments, the audio suffers from a continuous though subtle crackling, while others have noticeable hiss compared to the near pristine presentation of the rest of the soundtrack. A PCM track is also included.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Filmographies are included for Chaney and Meredith. Those looking for an alternate take with a happy ending will have to look elsewere.

Our review copy did come as Image's re-release keepcase edition, a welcome change from their old snappers.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

For those carefree days when all is right in the world, nothing will put a damper on your spirits faster than a little Steinbeck. Of Mice And Men is a well done adaptation of the novel, with all around great performances. The deviations from the source don't detract too badly from its impact. From a literary perspective it is rich in foreshadowing and metaphor, but I would question its inclusion in school curiculum for its bleak outlook on the human condition. If you like depressing subjects look no further, this is a classic.


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