Sunday, October 22, 2006

London Film Festival: Of Mice and Men (1939)

Earlier this evening I went to the screening of a restored print of the 1939 film Of Mice and Men based on the novel by John Steinbeck, a film which I have not seen before.

It was one of the most enjoyable cinema experiences I've had in a long while - no rattling popcorn, no mobile phones, no annoying brats kicking your seat or talking loudly through the whole film. Bliss!

The film was prefaced by a short talk from Robert Gitt who'd been responsible for this new restoration from the UCLA. He gave some background to the film before going on to talk about the problems with sourcing material, replicating the sepia toning when the chemicals originally used were no longer available (too toxic apparently!) and the whole complex process of trying to get the film as close as possible in terms of quality to the version that would have been shown to the public in 1939.

I wasn't sure whether the film would be my cup of tea - I find pre-60s films very hit and miss, but this was a real gem. The cast were mostly excellent, especially a very young Burgess Meredith, and a surprisingly good Lon Chaney Junior (I say 'surprisingly' because I saw him a few weeks ago on a DVD of the original Wolf Man movie and found him very wooden and unconvincing). This came across mainly as a very wordy play transferred to film, although there was some nice photography in the film, and apparently it made cinematic history by being the first film to have a scene BEFORE the main titles! Cinematographically one scene really stood out for me: a long zoom out, taken sideways on, when Meredith is told some bad news and walks the length of some stables, showing the growing distance and emptiness he was experiencing. A very clever shot - the more so when you consider it was put together over 65 years ago!

I thought the film was very powerful and moving (several people were dabbing their eyes as the lights came up) but it was interesting to hear the restorer's comments (sat directly behind me) to his companion when asking her what she thought: "Some people love it, others really dislike it for its sentimentality.", he told her, before adding "I think I'm somewhere in the middle"

I wasn't, and didn't find it overly-sentimental at all. The film has whet my appetite for my next classic viewing as part of the festival - a special screening of a new, restored print of David Lean's Great Expectations on Tuesday evening for BFI Champion members, with a reception afterwards. Should be fun! :)


Brian Sibley said...

Very interested to read your reaction to Lewis Milestone's film of Steinbeck - maybe Milestone's best movie after ALL'S QUIET ON TH WESTERN FRONT...

I look forward to reading your review of Lean's version of GREAT EXPECTATIONS with its evocative B&W photography by Guy Green (who later filmed Leans' OLIVER TWIST) and a great cast: John Mills superb as the innocent, sympathetic hero brilliant supported by Martita Hunt's dotty Miss Haversham, Bernard Miles adorable Joe Gargery, Finley Currie's terrifying Magwitch and Alec Guinness in his second-only film and first REAL role...

And if you don't jump when Magwitch makes his entrance I shall be VERY disappointed! :-) Enjoy!

Francis said...

Thinking of pre-1960 films, how are you on Ealing comedies? We recently borrowed DVDs of "Passport to Pimlico" and "The Ladykillers" and wallowed in the sweet rebellion of the former and not-so-threatening dark comedy of the latter. Another world, maybe - but give them an amazing cast list and they knew what to do with it.

Ian said...

Funnily enough the "Definitive Ealing Studios Collection" (16 disks!) arrived last week. I don't remember seeing any of the titles (which is why I bought the box set) but have to say that while I enjoyed "Kind Hearts and Cornets" I was slightly disappointed with "Passport to Pimlico" - the sound quality is very poor (distorted) and although these new DVDs are "digitally restored" there isn't a single extra on any of them, which strikes me as a bit mean given the asking price. Neither film was a patch on "Of Mice and Men" in my book.

A review MAY follow when I've worked my way through the lot, but don't expect anything soon!

Ian said...

Brian, It'll be interesting to see how much of this I remember. I vaguely remember the scene shown on the invite (the convict encountering the young boy) but then I guess it IS rather iconic. Can't remember anything else about it and think I must have been VERY young when I saw it on TV.