Films of John Steinbeck work

(the house at 124 Central Avenue, Calinas, CA where John Steinbeck was born in 1902)

Like Sinclair Lewis, another very popular writer whose award of a Nobel Prize for literature drove many literary critics to paroxysms of scorn, John Steinbeck’s novels have been better served on screen than those of the Holy Trinity of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, or (with the exception of two screen adaptations of To Have and to Have Not) Hemingway. Moreover, it is the major books — The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men — that were the bases for the most memorable movies (unlike the good movies based on work by Faulkner and Hemingway; as far as I know there are no good movies based on work by Fitzgerald).

The four films with screenplays by Steinbeck all have striking visuals. I have only seen parts of “The Forgotten Village”(directed by Herbert Kline 1941, narrated by Burgess Meredith), a documentary about progress (modern medicine and boiling drinking water). The parable of greed and despair, “The Pearl” (directed by Emilio Fernández with Pedro Armendáriz and María Elena Marqués, 1946), looks great with even more stunning chiaroscuro cinematography (by Gabriel Figueroa). Surely influenced by Eisenstein’s “Que Viva México,” there are also strong visual compositions (Joe McDonald’s) in “Viva Zapata!” directed by Elia Kazan in 1952 with standout performances by Marlon Brando, Anthony Quinn (the latter winning his first Academy Award in it) and by Zapata’s white horse

“The Red Pony” (directed by Lewis Milestone, 1949) is not a great film (as “The Grapes of Wrath” is). It does have a great musical score, Aaron Copland’s best. It also has the great Myrna Loy. Although down on the farm is not where she belonged, it is a pleasure to see Ms. Loy anywhere. It has Margaret Hamilton, also not where she belonged: as a teacher. It has Robert Mitchum while he was still smoldering and wasn’t phoning in his performances. What is unforgettable about the film is the death scene (to avoid spoiling the impact for anyone unfamiliar with it, I will not specify whose).

Steinbeck disavowed Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 film “Lifeboat” in anger at the stereotypes to which Canada Lee’s character was reduced, some anti-labor union rhetoric that I don’t remember, and an implicit message that to defeat the Nazis required being more like them in organization and single-mindedness that I do remember. What most people remember from “Lifeboat” is Tallulah Bankhead’s sangre-froide. If the story was truly Steinbeck’s, her presence would be the source of trouble, but instead it is basically her boat and she consents to take in others, even as she is gradually stripped of her comforts and possessions (perhaps the sadistic jettisoning of the tools of her trade — camera and typewriter — are remnants of Steinbeck’s story). John Hodiak manfully resists Bankhead’s ardent advances and William Bendix hallucinates.

I hadn’t heard of “A Medal for Benny” (directed by Irving Pichel 1945) until I saw a production still from it at the Steinbeck Library. I’m sure it’s heartwarming, possibly in a curdling way. J. Carroll Naish received an Oscar nomination, and Dorothy Lamour played the girl Benny left behind who finds ways to occupy herself in his absence.

Steinbeck Novels Adapted by Others (from best to worst)

The indisputable great film of Steinbeck’s writing is derived from his most famous and Pulitzer Prize-wining novel, The Grapes of Wrath. The film, directed in 1940 by John Ford, provided a defining role for Henry Fonda as Tom Joad and very memorable ones for Jane Darwell (in her Oscar-winning portrayal of Ma Joad) and John Carradine as the Rev. Jim Casey. The photography by the great Gregg Toland is very striking, both the daytime vistas and the firelit night-time people. Most of the political bite was defanged before being put on screen and a more upbeat Hollywood ending was added.
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In that James Dean died after making only three films, I can’t say that “East of Eden” defined him, though I think it was made before “Rebel Without a Cause.” I will say that “East of Eden” (directed by Elia Kazan, released in 1955) is the best film starring James Dean. Adam is the most memorable performance by Raymond Massey after being the young Abraham Lincoln, and there is a moving performance by a non-fluttering Julie Harris. Plus as Eve — renamed Kate — Jo Van Fleet chews up the scenery playing the mother who fled the Trask household to become the bordello keeper of Salinas. (She was Oscared for her snarling performance.) The primary problem with the film (other than lacking the background to what is shown; the film is taken from the last quarter of Steinbeck’s long novel) is Richard Davalos as Aaron Trask. (1) He can’t hold the screen with Dean or Massey, (2) he is turned way too goody-goody, and (3) his death is unbelievable—I’dguess in order to spare the blood being on James Dean’s hands. For a version of the Cain and Abel, this will not do! (There is a three-part miniseries adaptation I have not seen.)
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The other really memorable film based on a Steinbeck novel is “Of Mice and Men” (directed by Lewis Milestone in 1939). Burgess Meredith appeared in many films (Winterset, Rocky, Grumpy Old Men, etc), but other than being the Penguin on the tv “Batman,” his memorable screen work was as George. Rereading the book, I could hear his voice. I can see Lon Chaney, Jr. in my mind as Lenny, but the cadences of his speech are not lodged there as Meredith’s are. Charles Bickford played the variant of Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts (Slim) here, one of a long line of wise, tough foremen (etc.) in his career. Betty Field played the Eve (or Pandora) figure. “She was made for love and tragedy”? Not much of a tragic figure and more made for flirting than for love, I think. There’s splendid cinematography (Norbert Brodine) and a good musical score by Aaron Copland (though not nearly as good as that he would do for “The Red Pony”). There have been two later versions: A 1981 with Robert Blake as George and Randy Quiad as Lenny, and a 1992 version in living color directed by Gary Sinise, who also played George, with John Malkovich playing Lenny, from a screenplay by Horton Foote. The latter one is quite good and in color.

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The Red Pony” was well transferred to film in 1949by Lewis Milestone with the unlikely pair of wise parents played by Robert Mithum and Myrna Loy with Peter Miles as their son, owner of the pony, and Beau Bridges as another boy named Beau.

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James Franco’s best movie (as a director) to date is the 2017 adaptation of Steinbeck’s 1936 fruitpicker strike movie In Dubious Battle. It is quite faithful to the original book for three-quarters of its length, and retains the dubiousness of either success or a new system without new oppressors (the iron law of oligarchy).

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Irving Pichel directed the wartime propaganda film of “The Moon Is Down” (1943) with Cedric Hardwicke as the Nazi commandant confronted by Norwegian mayor Henry Travers and sabotage by townspeople. I think that I saw it on tv once upon a time, but I don’t remember anything about it, and it may be equally long ago reading of the novel (possession of which was a capital crime in the Third Reich) that makes it seem familiar.

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I have not seen the film of “The Wayward Bus” (Victor Vicas, 1957). The novel is deservedly forgotten, but a film starring Joan Collins and Jayne Mansfield in a tropical storm must have some camp cachet.

Both the novel The Pearl and its 1947 Mexican screen adaptation (directed in English  by Emiio Fernandez, starring Pedro Armendariz)  are simplistic, but the black-and-white cinematography by Gabriel Figuero (who would shoot “The Fugitive” for John Ford and “Night of the Iguana” for John Huston) is outstanding and won a Golden Globe.

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I enjoy Spencer Tracy’s sly Pilon in “Tortilla Flat” (directed by Victor Fleming, 1942) about as much as hearing fingernails scraping on chalkboards. I think that, in general, Tracy is a very overrated actor, but his patronizing turns as “men of the people” (Hemingway’s “Old Man in the Sea” is another instance, and his Oscar-winning sailor in “Captains Courageous” another) make me want to puke — or at least fast-forward. Hedy Lamarr slums in the picture (the ultra-glamorous star of “Algiers”, not to mention of “Ecstasy”) as “Sweets”!). The main reason to put up with Spencer Tracy and the romanticization of poverty in this is to enjoy John Garfield as the sweet, relatively simple-minded Danny. Frank Morgan was nominated for an Oscar for his wide-eyed Pirate who has visions of St. Francis, has a canine pack, and a bag of quarters to buy a gold thousand-day candlestick for St. Francis’s statue in the local church. I find his performance as noxiously hammy as Tracy’s.

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Cannery Row” (directed by David Ward, 1982) is a complete disaster despite Nick Nolte and Debra Winger being cast in roles that seem plausible for them — until one sees the result. John Huston’s narration is over-the-top parody of the Steinbeck faux heartiness. It combines material from Sweet Thursday with material from Cannery Row though the only part that works at all is the frog hunt.

I haven’t seen the 1981 miniseries version of “East of Eden” dominated by Jane Seymour and don’t remember much about the 1983 tv movie of “The Winter of Our Discontent” starring Donald Sutherland, Terri Garr, and Tuesday Weld, or various remakes of “Of Mice and Men,” The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Pearl”, and “The Red Pony.” I’d really like to see the 1959 tv version of “Burning Bright,” because it starred Colleen Dewhurst. And I’d like to see the tv adaptation of Travels with Charley, narrated by Henry Fonda (I heard some of it at the Steinbeck Museum while I was looking at Rocinante, the camper Steinbeck drove around America.

Listed as being in post-production is a film version of Steinbeck’s story “Flight.”

©2001, 2016, Stephen O. Murray

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