Cannery Row may be excessively sentimental, even a little corny, but it's all heart.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"One of the reasons people live on the Row is they don't want to be known." --Flora "Fauna" Flood

Today, the Monterey Peninsula is one of the world's top recreational and tourist areas, with probably more golf courses per capita (think Pebble Beach) than any spot on Earth. It wasn't always so. In the early twentieth century, the area's three small towns that snuggle along the Central California coast were barely noticeable. Monterey was a quiet fishing village, Carmel was a sleepy artists' colony, and Pacific Grove lay between the two. The term "Cannery Row" applied to the section of Ocean View Blvd. in southern Monterey where for a time a stretch of sardine canneries thrived. When the sardines ran out near the middle of the century, the canneries closed.

Nobel-prizewinning author John Steinbeck (1902-1968) grew up in Salinas, near the Monterey Peninsula, and he set many of his stories in the vicinity ("Of Mice and Men," "East of Eden"). The thing that probably helped the Peninsula's tourist business more than anything, though, were his 1945 semi-comic novel "Cannery Row" and its more romantic 1954 sequel, "Sweet Thursday." Today, if you visit Monterey, you'll find most of the old canneries turned into prosperous shops and restaurants, with the renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium at one end of the Row and a fancy hotel at the other. Thank Steinbeck.

Turning "Cannery Row" and "Sweet Thursday" into a single romantic comedy in 1982 presented a bit of a problem. Both books are highly episodic, especially the first one, which deals mainly with the down-and-out residents of the Row, and filming on Cannery Row itself proved impossible. Besides the Row having changed so much physically since Steinbeck's time, the city fathers wouldn't give permission to close the busy streets and make them over. The filmmakers, therefore, had to condense the many individual tales contained in the books into a coherent narrative and then decide where to shoot it. Enter writer-director David S. Ward, who had previously done the screenplay for "The Sting" (1973) and who made "Cannery Row" his first directorial effort. He smartly adapted Steinbeck's stories by using the main character's romance in the second book as the central episode of the movie and then compromising on the shooting locations, filming as much footage as he could along the open shoreline and recreating the Row back at the studio.

The movie is still episodic, however, with a somewhat herky-jerky construction. Worse, the studio sets don't always mesh well with the outdoor location shots, making the Row itself seem smaller, more boxy, more closed-in and claustrophobic than it really is. Nevertheless, with the movie's colorful characters, winning characterizations, charming stories, romanticized adventures, and winsome love affair, it's hard not to like "Cannery Row."

Steinbeck sets his stories at a time when the Monterey sardine canneries were either closed or closing. The Row is practically deserted, except for a general store, a cafe, a few dives, a brothel or two, and an assorted collection of down-and-outers. The books concentrated on the bums, derelicts, and prostitutes of the Row, elevating their layabout status into near mythical proportions, which is what the movie does as well. But in their midst is the story's leading personality, "Doc," a character Steinbeck based on his friend Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist and longtime resident of Cannery Row.

Nick Nolte stars as Doc, the biologist who lives alone, friends with the Row's loafers and hookers alike. Doc would like to make a name for himself somehow, to make his mark, but he's not sure how. He hopes his work with octopi will help him contribute something to science, but it's slow-going. He's also a lonely guy, his only companions the bums of the Row and the occasional fling with a married woman. Until he meets Suzie.

Suzie DeSoto, played by Debra Winger, is a newcomer to the Row, a naive young woman from back East, who worked her way to California and now has nowhere left to go. She takes a job as a "floozy" at the Row's house of ill repute, the Bear Flag Restaurant, run by Fauna Flood (Audra Lindley). When she and Doc first meet, it's not exactly love at first sight.

But that's the way of most romantic comedies, isn't it? The only thing they have in common is that they appear to be wrong for each other. Of course, the romantic couple in a movie never see what the audience sees immediately, that they're actually made for one another. So we get two hours of bickering, questioning, and a slowly, gently developing romance before the final embrace. Love knows no bounds.

When I first saw the movie many years ago, I wasn't sure that Nolte fit the part of the relatively polite and courteous Doc, Nolte being something of a tough-guy actor at the time. But he grows on you, and his performance is at once noble and complex. On the other hand, I instantly fell in love (figuratively speaking) with Winger. She is such a sweetheart that one cannot but like her. Well, it's a little like the movie itself, actually. It's not a work of greatness, but it's one that's hard not to like.

The fine character actors M. Emmet Walsh and Frank McRae head up the roster of Row bums, Mack and Hazel. Mack is the leader of a group of idlers and wastrels, and Hazel is a gentle giant of a man with "the mind of a small boy ground into the body of a bull." Sunshine Parker plays the Seer, a man who "sees visions," whom Doc takes care of; and Santos Morales plays Joseph and Mary, the proprietor of the Row's general store. Like the rest of the players, they are hard to resist.

Rounding out the cast is John Huston as the story's voice-over narrator. Huston had a wonderfully stentorian baritone voice that reminds one of Steinbeck, helping to blend the film's many disparate parts into something resembling a cohesive whole. The warm, wistful, sometimes bluesy background music provided by composer Jack Nitzsche ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"), aided and abetted by Bach, Mozart, and various tunes of the era, also contributes to the movie's generally laid-back, meditative mood, as does the film's meticulous 1940s' period detail.

Look for any number of amusing moments: Doc and Suzie's first uncomfortable meeting; Doc and Suzie's first date; the "Great Frog Expedition"; the party Mack and the boys throw for Doc; and on and on. It's that sort of film: a compilation of small moments that add up to an overall feel-good experience.

Steinbeck did for the Row what Damon Runyon had done for New York's Broadway and Times Square more than a decade earlier. He turned some of the more-disreputable denizens of the area into colorful, loveable characters now known the world over. "Cannery Row" may be excessively sentimental and even a little corny, but it's all heart, just like the people in it.

Trivia: Visitors to Cannery Row nowadays can still find many of the locations mentioned by Steinbeck: Doc Rickett's lab, the Bear Flag Restaurant, and the general store, for instance, although the latter establishments currently go by different names. Check them out if you're ever in the area.

Warner video engineers present the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio in an anamorphic transfer, enhanced for widescreen TVs. All the same, it's a pretty soft affair, the delineation even a tad blurred in the manner of a good standard-definition television broadcast. Still, the softness tends to complement the film's dreamy, starry-eyed atmosphere, and certainly one cannot fault the film's colors, which are quite natural and realistic.

What kind of surprises me is that as late as 1982 when MGM made this film, studios were still releasing many, if not most, of their titles in monaural. Today, we take 5.1 for granted. In 1982, two and three-channel stereo was just coming into their own. But multichannel sound wasn't quite there yet in terms of universal acceptance. Converting motion-picture theaters from monaural took time.

Anyway, the Dolby Digital 1.0 mono sound is fine for what the film calls upon it to do; namely, convey a whole lot of dialogue and a bit of music. The midrange, which comprises most of the sound, is fine, a little sharp, perhaps, and forward, but reasonably natural all the same. Otherwise, there isn't much in the way of dynamic range or frequency extremes.

Not much here. Warners provide twenty-eight scene selections, a theatrical trailer, English as the only available spoken language, French subtitles, and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
The Wife-O-Meter and I have always liked "Cannery Row" since the first time we saw it in a theater. More cynical critics probably dismiss it as merely romanticized fluff, bearing no relationship to reality. Fair enough. But we aren't always looking for dramatic realism in our entertainment, and Steinbeck knew this when he wrote "Cannery Row" and "Sweet Thursday." For Steinbeck, these particular books represent idealized glimpses into alternate, fanciful worlds, where even bums can be heroes. "Cannery Row" is gentle, nostalgic, and romantic. If one accepts its fanciful sentimentality, it can work wonders on an ill temper.


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