Of Mice and Men (1939)
seen on TV @ TCM
Yeah, so we all read Of Mice and Men in high school, right? It's one of those Great American Novels we all learn about and then forget after the English test and the vocabulary words and the final essay. I admit to having read it only once, in high school, and never again. I'm as familiar with the story as I am because of having seen the 90s film version with Gary Sinise and John Malkovich. This was, of course, during my video store days. I don't recall if we had the 1939 version. Maybe it wasn't available on VHS at the time? Don't remember.
The friendship between George and Lenny is great. George feels responsible for Lenny, but at the same time, one gets the sense that he would totally ditch him if he could live with the consequences. Lenny is useful in terms of getting work, but he's dumb as a post, and that ultimately makes him a liability. When you're living in the heart of the Great Depression, though, and you're totally on your own, abandoning him isn't such an easy decision to make, and that's what makes their relationship so fascinating to watch, from start to finish.
Lon Chaney Jr. plays Lenny, and he's the subject of this particular post. He's certainly well-cast; I didn't realize how tall he was, but then, everybody looked tall next to Burgess Meredith! (IMDB lists him as 6'2".) You could say that Lenny's not a difficult role to play; just act dumb - and not even dumb in an ironic, knowing way, like Marilyn Monroe, but literally stupid - and maybe that's true. I suspect the trick may be in maintaining consistency, not slipping into caricature - remembering that dumb as Lenny may be, he's still a person and not a cartoon.
In the TCM intro to the film, Robert Osborne and guest programmer Gilbert Gottfried (!!) mentioned that LCJ wasn't regarded as that great an actor in general, especially in comparison to his famous father, but I thought he pulled the role off fine. His Lenny seemed a little broader than Malkovich's Lenny, but I doubt anyone would argue that Malkovich is a better actor overall.
It couldn't have been easy, living in the shadow of his father, Lon Sr. LCJ originally performed under his given name, Creighton Chaney, until a producer changed his name as a means to boost his career. It helped to a degree, but history shows that he wasn't thrilled about it. A quote attributed to him states, "I am most proud of the name Lon Chaney. I am not proud of Lon Chaney, Jr., because they had to starve me to make me take this name."
LCJ played a wolfman, a vampire, a mummy, and even the Frankenstein monster (on TV) throughout his career, and you gotta admit, that's one heck of a grand slam. These days, actors who play movie monsters and/or serial killers rarely get as much recognition as the Chaneys did, and while they may also take on "straight" roles, rarely are they in films the caliber of Mice, or High Noon or The Defiant Ones, as LCJ did. I suppose the actor who comes closest to the Chaneys' legacy today may be Andy Serkis, but of course, he requires a CGI makeover for his best-known monster roles.
LCJ may not have scaled the cinematic heights his father did, but he did alright for himself. You can't go wrong with a career that's been immortalized in song...
The Phantom of the Opera (w/Lon Chaney Sr.)