Other Cowboy Stars — Bob Steele in “Of Mice and Men”
April 17, 2011
Charles Starrett was at Columbia for seventeen years. The down-side to having a minor contract with a major studio is that there is no outside work. Charley couldn’t take a break from being a cowboy hero and go play a heavy in another studio’s film. Bob Steele didn’t have this problem (nor did he have the career stability that Starrett’s studio contract afforded him. Or, presumably, the paycheck.)
So, right between “El Diablo Rides” and “Wild Horse Valley”, films in which Bob Steele played a character named “Bob”, he appeared on the same bill with Burgess Meredith, Lon Chaney Jr and some heavy hitters from the New York stage. The film was the 1938 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”, directed by Oscar-winner Lewis Milestone. It was nominated for Best Picture.
Steele plays “Curly”, the spoiled owner of the ranch where George and Lenny are working. He plays the classic short man with a chip on his shoulder. (In fact, Burgess “The Penquin” Meredith has a good inch or two on Steele.)
It’s a challenging role. Steele plays Curly very intense. His movie star confidence works well when he’s playing the spoiled asshole; his scrappy familiarity with horses gives him authentic authority. Curly is multi-layered — a coward, a blowhard, tough, afraid, jealous, cruel, pathetic. He swaggers, he cowers, he jeers and glowers. He’s flawed to his core.
Charles Starrett was never allowed, or never allowed himself, to portray a character of this complexity.
Awesome film, too, if you haven’t seen it or haven’t seen it in a while.