Lon Chaney, Jr., once portrayed the sweetest, most sensitive soul you’d ever want to meet. He was an easy-going fellow who wasn’t the least bit fussy. “I don’t need no fancy foods like beans with ketchup,” the character declared, and he meant it.
But this sweet, sensitive soul was also dangerous. If you weren’t careful, he’d kill you.
The 1939 version of Of Mice and Men is the first (and our favourite) retelling of the John Steinbeck story. It received four Oscar nominations but none for acting, which is a doggone shame considering the cast included Burgess Meredith and our man Chaney, Jr.
Of Mice and Men was Lon Chaney, Jr.’s breakout movie. It made him a star.
In the film, Chaney and Meredith are Lenny and George, migrant workers who travel throughout California. Chaney’s and Meredith’s characters are opposite to each other in every possible way. Chaney is tall and muscular; Meredith is small and wiry. Chaney’s character takes people at face value; Meredith sniffs for a motive. And, while Meredith is a fast thinker, Chaney is not. Chaney’s character has the mental capacity of a five year-old.
Chaney is utterly convincing as the sweet-natured Lenny. His goal in life is to buy a small homestead with Meredith: they will have a little house, a cow, some chickens. And rabbits. It will be Chaney’s job to tend the rabbits, as he reminds Meredith all day, every day.
Because he is mentally challenged, yet physically strong, Chaney’s character is fascinatingly complex. Chaney gives a remarkable portrayal, and never slides outside of character. Even when he’s not in the foreground, he’s still Lenny-esque, watching other characters with eager but slightly vacant eyes.
When Chaney’s character is given a puppy, his face glows. This giant of a man sits cross-legged in the barn with the wee pup, cuddling it and scratching its ears. The puppy is his whole world, and he couldn’t be happier.
We think it’s a scene of joy and we say, “Aww.” But it’s not. This is Chaney setting us up.
It’s a mean trick he plays on us. All through the movie we suspect disaster is going to kneecap us, but we shove it aside. Chaney is guileless and trusting, and he suckers us into believing everything will be all right.
Except it’s not. We are given a sudden, shocking glimpse into Chaney’s darker side when the boss’ churlish son (Bob Steele) attacks Chaney by hitting him in the face. Chaney, who’s been told to never fight back, covers his face with his hands and wails, “George, make him stop!” When Meredith gives him permission to defend himself, Chaney seems to fall into a trance. He simply reaches for Steele’s hand and crushes it. He doesn’t let go; he neither sees nor hears nor feels, while Steele writhes below him, shrieking with pain.
You see? Chaney has led us to believe that something like this could never happen, not on our watch. But it does – and much worse, too, before the film is over.
There have been four other versions made of the Steinbeck novella, Of Mice and Men. But for our money, no other actor comes close to capturing Lenny’s charming innocence as Lon Chaney, Jr. He is riveting as a man who is too dangerous for his own good.
Of Mice and Men: starring Burgess Meredith, Betty Field, Lon Chaney, Jr. Directed by Lewis Milestone. Screenplay by Eugene Solow. United Artists Corp., B&W, 1939, 104 mins.