Tag Archives: Steinbeck

John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”

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Roughly a hundred pages, and easily transformed into a play and movie, Of Mice and Men would seem to be John Steinbeck’s tightest construction. It has a plot that does not seem forced even though its design is very schematic. Like ancient Greek tragedies—or those of Steinbeck’s contemporary and fellow Novel laureate, Eugene O’Neill — the doom is foreshadowed from the beginning and fate moves inexorably to cut down men and to dash their plans.

For the migrant and stationary (maimed) farmworkers, the plan is of owning a small farm rather than working for others. The hulking mentally deficient Lennie is fixated on being in charge of the rabbits on the farm George is going to buy with their save-up earnings. The reader may wonder if even rabbits can breed fast enough to maintain their numbers with a caretaker who tends to pet animals to death. He doesn’t mean to kill the soft beings to which he is drawn, but. . . There was that woman back in Weed. The dead mouse. Then the puppy. . .

For George, who “looks after” Lennie (and probably only is hired because he delivers so formidable and mindless a worker as Lennie) the farm is a dream. That is, he knows it is never going to happen, because he is never going to save the money to buy it. And then a prospective partner with assets jolts him into transforming fantasy into plan. And George could have complained to Steinbeck, “You only build me up to tear me down—down—down.”

There is a lot of repetition in this short novel, not just Lennie’s obsessive telling and being told about the farm he and George are going to have. And there is also room to show the pain of racial exclusion. (In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck recalled that there was only one black family when he was growing up in Salinas. A family, even in Steinbeck, may provide a bulwark against a hostile world, but Crooks has no family and is excluded from the amusements of the bunkhouse, forced to rely on the cold comfort of books: “Books ain’t no good. A guy needs somebody—to be near him. A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody.” Hmmm. And often even when he does, as Curley and Lennie do.)

There are two slabs of would-be lyrical nature writing. I don’t think that Steinbeck’s inclusion of Crooks works, since his plight is not parallel in any significant way to George’s or Lennie’s, but the two passages about what is happening in the woods other than what the humans are up to seem to me to contribute to showing the indifference of the cosmos to the fate of the characters.

Steinbeck’s sexual (and other kinds of) politics

There’s a bully, the rancher’s son Curley in testosterone overdrive because he is unable to satisfy his newly acquired wife. She is constantly on the prowl. Steinbeck does not bother to giver her a name, so let’s call her Eve—the archetypal woman disrupting a male paradise, offering fatal temptation to those poor witless creatures, human males. Steinbeck does allow her to give voice to her own loneliness and frustrations cooped up with a bantam who is all crow but whatever his sympathies for her plight, he has her brings down destruction on her games, George and Lennie’s plans, and her own life.

In that Steinbeck’s two recurrent mythical archetypes were the Garden of Eden and the Knights of the Round Table — with special emphasis on women disrupting homosocial utopias with heterosexual desire and jealousy— I do not think that I am imaging the “logic” of misogyny here. And a terror at female sexual initiative (see “The Snake” from The Long Valley for more openly expressed distaste. Also, as usual, there is a wise man’s man (here named “Slim”) based on Monterey marine biologist Ed Ricketts .And while I am on the subject of Steinbeck’s misogyny, the idealization of the woman as beautiful and peaceful-appearing once she is safely dead bears mentioning.)

There are racial politics and sexual politics and class differences, but I don’t read Of Mice and Men as a “protest novel” or even “political.” If anything, the sensationalizing of the “animalistic” dangerousness of a seemingly placid hunk from “the lower orders” is illiberal. (Steinbeck was a liberal, but a hawkish liberal supporting wars waged by liberal presidents, including the unpopular one in Vietnam.)

After Eve is the catalyst for The Fall, there are Cain and Abel. The ending of the novel seems to me a variant on the knowing one killing the unknowing one. The real-life model was, like Tularecito in The Pastures of Heaven, sent off to the state hospital for the criminally insane at Napa. Incidentally, the real-life model repeatedly stabbed with a pitchfork the rancher who was going to fire his friend. I bring this up, possibly heavy-handedly, to emphasize that the source and victim of violence was male and provided the possibility of a more political economic critique. Making a woman responsible and enacting a death sentence on her were Steinbeck’s modifications—modifications paralleling much of his other writing.

Conclusion

Obviously, I have some qualms about what Steinbeck created. With some major flaws (besides the slackness of the scene in Crooks’s room, I mean Lennie’s hallucinations at the end: it seem to me a mistake in that the perspective through the rest of the book is external and I suspect a misguided attempt to compete with Faulkner in this), Of Mice and Men remains a powerful book, probably Steinbeck’s most accomplished fiction. It clearly continues to be widely read.

Appendix: On the suitability of the book as reading matter for pre-adults

George’s mix of patience and impatience for Lennie and the tragic ending are what I remembered from reading Of Mice and Men in junior high school. Given the high level of violence graphically portrayed in much current American culture, I was puzzled that the book was the book that ranked fifth in attempts to remove books from circulation in libraries last year. I reread it to try to guess why.

In the opening scene, George uses a lot of profanity. Would-be book banners might not get as far as the casual acceptance of prostitution as a fact of life. And I suppose that the third “p” could be read into the book, too (Curley’s wife flirting with the childlike innocent — except that it seems to me that she is interested in the man, not the child in Lennie. . .).

I certainly do not think that the book should be banned, but I think that it is a book for adults. Not because of the profanity or the sex or the violence — all of which are ubiquitous in America 2001 A.D. — but because I do not think that very many (if any) adolescents can understand the kinds of desperations driving the characters. Teenagers have their own desperations, but the kinds of disappointments the characters have had are opaque to adolescents.

As I said, I read the book for the first time myself in junior high school. I don’t think that I was in any way harmed by reading it, but I am sure that I failed to understand Curley and Curley’s wife, in particular. I might have understood some of George’s anguish, especially in the final act, but doubt that I understood his weaknesses. Of course, had anyone told me that I wasn’t old enough to understand the book, that would have ensured my reading it to prove any paternalistic adults wrong. (I wish I could find the book report I wrote on Dante’s Inferno in 8th grade to see if I understood anything of it then!) I would urge others who may have read the apparently simple book at similarly young ages to reread it. It may be more troubling to adult readers who can understand more of it than to adolescents!

(I also think that Steinbeck’s The Red Pony has much for adults to ponder and much to unsettle younger readers, too.)

©2001, 2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

Films of John Steinbeck work

(the house at 124 Central Avenue, Salinas, CA where John Steinbeck was born 27 Feb. 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) he is still alive at the end of the movie —I’d guess in order to spare the blood being on James Dean’s hands. For a version of the Cain and Abel, this will not do! (I thought that Hart Bochner, who was more priggish but less jealous in the 1981 miniseries made more sense; the miniseries also covered the whole novel.)
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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 Quaid 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 Mitchum 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 nearly 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 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.” And another version of East of Eden is rumored, too.

©2001, 2016, Stephen O. Murray