Of Mice and Men: Mental Enfeeblement Racism and Mercy Killing in 1939 Hollywood has been nominated for the 2022 Richard Wall Memorial Award.
Questionnaire: Of Mice and Men: Mental Enfeeblement, Racism, and Mercy-Killing in 1939 Hollywood, by Gregory William Mank. Published by BearManor Media, December, 2022.
1.Q. What inspired you to write this book?
- In December of 2018, my wife Barbara and I were driving through “Steinbeck Country” in California – pastoral locales such as Salinas and Soledad. They’d provided such a beautiful, memorable setting in many of Steinbeck’s stories, including his 1937 novella, Of Mice and Men.
Well, I’d been a great fan of the novella and the 1939 film version...in fact, as a teacher in Baltimore, I’d taught the book for many years. Its hold on the students (and I taught some pretty tough kids!) was powerful and unfailing. They came to love George and Lennie, and after the climax, when George mercy-kills Lennie by the river, many students would leave the classroom crying...even sobbing.
The film always deeply moved me as well. So much so that, as my wife and I drove through the hills and valleys that day, I kept wondering, “Where was the precise location of the ranch in Of Mice and Men?” and “Where was Lennie buried?” and “When was the last time that anyone placed flowers on the grave of Curley’s Wife?” I knew, of course that these characters were fictional, yet over the years – and especially after seeing them so indelibly incarnated in the 1939 film – I easily imagined them having actually lived in these surroundings.
It was a strange, eerie feeling that day in Steinbeck Country! And it inspired me to tackle this project and learn all I could about the making of the hauntingly passionate movie...and how Lewis Milestone, the film’s producer and director, made it all come to life so poignantly on the screen.
- Q. The film had been a controversial project, hadn’t it?
- Very much so. Hollywood-at-large never believed any producer could ever get the story past the censors. America was especially frightened of mental enfeeblement and insanity in this era. Some argued that, based on the evidence, Lennie wasn’t just mentally-enfeebled – he was a “sex pervert” as well. Curley’s Wife appeared on the surface to be promiscuous, although her true problem was her heartbreaking loneliness. The character of Crooks, the black stable hand, was a defiant challenge to the black characters of stage and screen who were comic caricatures. The film was packed with dynamite, years before its time.
Yet...it triumphed. Of Mice and Men premiered in December of 1939 – widely acclaimed as Hollywood’s Greatest Year – and became one of the ten films nominated for the Oscar as Best Picture. It was up against such classics as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, and the winner, Gone With the Wind. It won no Oscars, but of all the Academy-nominated films of 1939, it was the most daring, the most harrowing...and arguably, the most tragic.
3.Q. Talk about your research for the book.
- That’s almost a book in itself! First a little background: Lewis Milestone, as noted, was Of Mice and Men’s producer/director, but for financial backing and distribution, he had to make a deal with Hal Roach Studios. This was incongruous – Roach was famous for his Laurel and Hardy comedies – and the pact actually came about to settle a pre-existing legal battle between Milestone and Roach. Years later, in the early 1960s, Hal Roach Studios went out of business, developers razed the studio, and the Roach Studios donated many of its papers to the USC Performing Arts Library.
When I began this book in 2019, Ned Comstock, USC’s terrific curator, now retired, checked the archives and found boxes of production material on Of Mice and Men...basically unread for 80 years! There were the contracts, budget sheets, correspondence, censorship details, daily shooting reports, information on the location site, and much more – basically what amounted to a written record of the shooting on paper. Reviewing it made me feel that I had actually been there for the filming. My job, then, was to make the reader feel as if he or she had been there for the filming as well.
- Q. What was the most interesting material in the files?
- One of the most intriguing aspects were the screen tests. Hollywood studios were always secretive about actors and actresses testing for roles. There were exceptions, such as the Scarlett O’Hara tests for Gone With the Wind, but studios were sensitive not to publicize actors testing for key roles because they didn’t want to embarrass them if he or she lost out to a different player. The screen test file revealed all the actors who competed for the seven featured roles, with details on the tests, with whom they tested, and so on. There’s even data on actors considered for the major roles, but who didn’t do tests. I won’t give away any names, but let’s just say that there are in the book a lot of surprises!
- Q. What about the actors who played George and Lennie?
- Burgess Meredith, who played George, was an acclaimed New York actor who’d been in a few films, notably Winterset (1936), in which he reprised his Broadway success. His test for George was explosive. Meredith later claimed that he was in rather a daze during the shoot, as he’d just spent a scandalous misadventure in Europe – the details are in the book – which left him a physical and emotional wreck. Nevertheless, his portrayal of George was tremendous.
Lon Chaney, Jr. who’d played Lennie, had endured seven years of sad misadventures trying for success in Hollywood. He was suffering from alcohol addiction, and had hit rock bottom personally and professionally when, prior to the film, he’d landed the role of Lennie in the West Coast stage production of Of Mice and Men. Wallace Ford, who’d played George on Broadway, was starring in and co-producing the West Coast version, and Ford took a chance on Chaney. Well, Chaney was terrific, and he fought very hard to convince Milestone to cast him in the film. He performed several tests, although Milestone had several other, better-known actors of that era in mind for the role. Chaney ultimately won the part, and played it brilliantly.
- Q. Tell about the Broadway production, and the West Coast production you just mentioned.
- The play opened in New York in November of 1937. Wallace Ford was George, Broderick Crawford was Lennie, and Claire Luce was Curley’s Wife. All were outstanding, but when the film was made, Crawford was committed to movies, and Luce was performing the play in London, so both were unavailable.
As for Wallace Ford...he desperately wanted to reprise George in the film, so he co-produced and starred in the West Coast stage production, hoping Milestone and Roach would see him and decide he was the only actor to play George. One of the most moving parts of the book concerns how passionately Ford fought to play George in the film, but failed to get the role. It broke his heart.
- Q. Did anyone from the Broadway cast appear in the film?
- Leigh Whipper played Crooks, the black stable hand. He had created the role on Broadway, had played it in the national company, then the West Coast company, and then the film. He was tremendously effective in the part.
- Q. Who played Curley’s Wife in the West Coast company and the movie?
- Isabel Jewell played Curley’s Wife in the West Coast company; she was reportedly excellent, but didn’t test for the film. Betty Field landed the role of Curley’s Wife in the movie of Of Mice and Men ... and she was a powerhouse. She was only 23-years-old at the time and had acted in only two previous movies, playing ingenues in both. As Curley’s Wife, called “Mae” in the film version, she was sexy, vicious, sympathetic, magnificently tragic....and so terribly lonely that it’s almost painful to watch her. Her death scene, in which Lennie breaks her neck, is still a shocker all these years later.
- Q. What did Steinbeck think of the film?
- Steinbeck avoided dramatizations of his own work – he had never gone to see the Broadway production of Of Mice and Men – but he did see the film before its premiere. He thought Lewis Milestone had done a splendid job and even agreed to promote the film. By the way, the film looks the way Steinbeck wrote, and the book has over 100 pictures – portraits, scene stills, candid shots, and much more.
- A. Why is the film still so popular and revered today?
- First of all, it plays with a terrific head of steam. Lewis Milestone, as director, gave the film a lyrical poetry and seething passion. Second, it shatters taboos other Hollywood producers of the era had never dared to challenge. And finally, it makes the viewers love the characters...George with his touching dreams, Lennie with his pitiful handicap, Mae with her violent loneliness.
In the novella, George says, “Guys like us who work on ranches are the loneliest guys in the world.” Taking his cue from Steinbeck, Lewis Milestone and his remarkable cast tapped into that loneliness, so that all these characters, incarnated in the film, are no longer lonely.
Instead, audiences over the decades have taken them to their hearts...and they’ve become beloved.