Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. USA, 1939. Hal Roach Studios. Screenplay by Eugene Solow, based on the novel by John Steinbeck. Cinematography by Norbert Brodine. Produced by Lewis Milestone. Music by Aaron Copland. Production Design by Nicolai Remisoff. Costume Design by Harry Black. Film Editing by Bert Jordan. Academy Awards 1939.
John Steinbeck’s timelessly popular novel is adapted to the big screen, hot on the heels of the stage version that also featured Lon Chaney Jr. in the role of Lenny. He and Burgess Meredith are terrific as best pals who wander the countryside in search of work as labourers, hoping to collect their funds enough to someday own their own farm and, as Meredith’s George says, “live off the fat of the land”. They take work on a ranch that puts them in the way of a gruff owner, his hotheaded son and the son’s bored wife, the two men doing their best to keep their heads down despite the difficulties constantly being caused by Lenny’s sweet but simple nature and George’s having to compensate for him. Dreams are no match for capitalism, and workers who are being exploited cannot expect to find much happiness despite their best efforts, but director Lewis Milestone doesn’t let it feel gloomy. For a story that involves so much struggle and even the death of a couple of beloved pets, it manages to be touching but also compelling, never dreary, and the moody cinematography and fine supporting cast (with Leigh Whipper as the isolated Crooks) help create a solid film that Gary Sinise tried but couldn’t outdo decades later. It’s also a great example of the kind of Red sentimentality that Hollywood could still get away with before communist paranoia would take over in the years to come.