Last week Betty and I watched the 1992 rendition of Of Mice and Men starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich. This particular adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name was predated by a 1939 version starring Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney, Jr. and Bob Steele.
Sometime around 1952 or 1953, at 111 Beech Street in Casa Grande, Arizona, I sat on the big oval hooked rug made from tatters of denim and other disregarded material that kept the chill off me from the concrete floor beneath. Towheaded, with my gapped front teeth already making their statement about the image I would become, I was watching KPHO TV Channel Five when the 1939 version of Of Mice and Men came on the tube.
My mother was in the kitchen baking chocolate chip cookies, and between visiting on the phone with friends, her mother, her brother’s snarly wife, she sang Mormon hymns. She must have heard the announcer presenting the day’s morning feature film—it was Saturday—because, and I distinctly remember her saying this, she told me, “Kenny, I don’t think you should watch that movie.”
I must have said, “Why?” because right now I recall the conversation definitely going on, the words flitting back and forth, my mother’s words coming out of the kitchen along with snippets of the tune “Give, Said the Little Stream,” and the scent of those sweet cookies.
What I probably sent back to her in response to her signals were mostly smart-assed mental messages. I probably made some faces, too, scrunching up my lips beneath the end of my nose, shaking my head and body as I silently mimicked, “Kenny, I don’t think you should watch that movie.”
She kept saying it, she kept saying it. She kept saying it. Even at that age, five or six years old, I already understood how my mother operated. If she really hadn’t wanted me to watch Of Mice and Men she’d have stomped into the front room and turned off the TV and if necessary she would have switched my butt with the flyswatter. Sometimes I forced that . . . the switching with the fly swatter.
But she didn’t switch my butt, she just kept sending me sweet-worded warnings along with the lyrics to a song.
I don’t remember many of the details of that 1939 version except hating the Bob Steele character, Curley, and loving the Lon Chaney, Jr., character Lenny (who suffered from what we now call a developmental disability). Because of how the story was structured, I was supposed to hate Curley and love Lenny.
In the end, Lon’s character, Lenny, kills Curley’s wife, not maliciously, but regardless, ends her life and so he must pay. Lenny’s best friend and protector, George, instead of allowing Lenny to be ripped apart and murdered by a mob (and probably also to save himself), shoots Lenny in the back of the head while telling Lenny about the wonderful farm they are going to own sometime down the road.
Until the sound and image of that murder, I really liked George, too, but instantly, besides being confused, I loathed George, and loathed something much larger which I could not reasonably articulate but certainly felt in my gut and bone marrow. I suspect that something larger and my loathing of it was what my mother was subtly warning me about.
I remember, much to my chagrin, breaking out in sobs after George shot Lenny. Sobs weren’t encouraged around our house, so I was flummoxed pretty good to break out the way I did, as if all the gates named reticence were broken down.
My mother took me in her arms and we lay on the couch, her soothing me and yet advising me how she’d not wanted me to watch that film.
Twelve years late, my senior year in high school, I checked Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men out of the library. My tow head had turned sandy brown and my gap teeth were definitely prominent. Reading about Curley and Lenny and George I received a dose of realism in the first degree.
Realism . . . Steinbeck wrote the book during the Depression and he aimed, I surmise, to portray the hard world of labor and poverty and wealth during that era. But he was also writing about the hard world of love and friendship and mutual respect.
George was hard on Lenny all through the story, but he loved Lenny and respected him as a person although in the end he killed him; one, for Lenny putting George in the position of being his protector and thus responsible for Lenny’s actions, and two, to forestall Lenny having to deal with what was to come. Talk about hard stuff . . . George’s realization that the decisions we make to save ourselves might also be the decisions that destroy us and often the decisions cannot be avoided.
Here it is almost sixty years since I first watched Of Mice and Men and the impact of Steinbeck’s tale still lives on in my thoughts. That’s what I call power in a story. We can rant and rail concerning the inequalities, or lack thereof, inherent in humanity’s behavior towards one another and it doesn’t mean much. But drape the issues on the backs of characters like Lenny and George and you can penetrate the human heart.
Steinbeck knew that. Tortilla Flat, East of Eden, and The Grapes of Wrath are some of his other novels that can bash our emotions. Steinbeck wrote about the essence of being human.
I suspect my mother, too, understood the power of story to move us and even though she warned me about Of Mice and Men, she let me watch it, let me get an early lesson about the power of story, and more than that, about humanity.