Sometimes, There Is More Than One Victim
I think I was failed by the public school system, when I was a child, in part because of the assumption that, if a child is intelligent enough for a book's language, that child is obviously mature enough for the book's themes. This is where Age Inappropriate rears its ugly head, when people are looking for reasons to ban books. And I put it to you that some people really are looking for reasons. Book-banning can be a power trip for some people. At any rate, I was assigned my first Steinbeck in seventh grade. His language is deceptively simple. You wouldn't necessarily know that [i]The Red Pony[/i], for all it is a simply-written book about a young boy, isn't really appropriate for kids that boy's own age. I was astonished at how much I liked [i]Of Mice and Men[/i], when I came to read it, and [i]Grapes of Wrath[/i]. After all, I came to connect it to the book Gwen calls [i]The Dead Pony[/i], which I might like if I read now but was too young for when I did read it.
The time is the Great Depression. The place is Steinbeck Country. George (Burgess Meredith) and Lenny (Lon Chaney, Jr.) have been run out of Weed, because Lenny touched a girl because her dress was so pretty--and then was too scared to let go when she started screaming. George and Lenny are cousins; Lenny is a big, strong man who was kicked in the head as a child and has remained mentally a child. They have gotten a job at a ranch, but they have the dream of buying a place of their own and living "off the fat of the land." The ranch they are working at is owned by an old man (Oscar O'Shea, I think) and run by Slim (Charles Bickford). The old man's son, Curley (Bob Steele), a former boxer, wanders around the place making trouble--as does his hot and restless wife (Betty Field), given the name of Mae for the movie. For a while, it looks like Lenny and George will get their ranch, with old hand Candy (Roman Bohnen), but this is Steinbeck and therefore unlikely to end happily.
Mae is trouble. Everyone knows it but Lenny. Lenny isn't bright enough to understand. He only knows that she is pretty--he can't even see how brash and trashy she is--and that she is soft. Probably, she smells nice, too. And to be fair, Mae is probably lonely, being alone on that ranch with Curley and his father. There are no other women, and she is forbidden by Curley to talk to the men, who probably aren't much interested in talking to her, either. What do they have to talk about? She wants someone to listen, but she isn't much interested in listening herself. I'm not sure she'd know what to do with a friend if she had one, but she doesn't. She wasn't raised to be anything but trouble, and she is never going to be happy. I'm not a big fan of blaming victims, naturally, but what happens to Mae is as much her fault as anyone else's. She's doing what she's been told not to do--on several levels, in fact--and pays the price for it.
Part of it is that you can't really blame Lenny for anything, either. He doesn't remember most of what's said around him or most of what happens. He can recite most of what George says to him, and he can work hard. However, he can't do much beyond that. The reason George promises him that he can look after the rabbits, when they get a place of their own, is that he doesn't really believe they'll ever get one. It's easy to keep promises you'll never have to keep. He knows Lenny well enough not to trust him with his own work card. He knows that Lenny gets so distracted by soft things that he doesn't remember what he's been told--he gets distracted easily by all kinds of things, in fact. He's slow and simple. George has been taking care of him since they were kids, and he knows what will happen to Lenny if George is not there to take care of him. Steinbeck builds his tragedy carefully; there is nothing in Lenny that is at fault for anything he does wrong.
I suspect this was another one of those Classic Novels of the Twentieth Century that everyone had to read in high school. I read it twice, in fact; this was yet another result of my having failed a semester of English sophomore year. The second time was in the summer school class, and it's enough to make me pretty sure that the first time was in spring semester. I remember watching the other version of this movie, the one with Gary Sinise as George and John Malkovich as Lennie. However, I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've seen this version, and Mr. Garden would have showed it to us given half an excuse. It is, after all, one of the Great Films of 1939, and I don't think we saw any of those fall semester. After all, what people forget about the Great Films of 1939 is that half of them are adaptations or even remakes. This isn't one of the ones which springs to mind for most people, I'm sure, but it's still a worthy addition to that particular list. Even if most people only remember it as a thousand pop culture references to rabbits.