Judge Christopher Kulik once worked at a caviar factory, canning roe.
"Cannery Row has never been like anywhere else…"—Narrator John Huston
I love classic and modern literature, but I've never been crazy about John Steinbeck. Odd, I know. His stories are surely not without merit, and he's excellent at telling him, especially when it comes to period details. However, the interest level always seems to wane for me, with The Grapes Of Wrath and Of Mice And Men being perfect examples. Sometimes I get lost in the drama, and sometimes I just find it ineffectual. People can go on and on about him being the Great American Novelist, but to me he's no Mark Twain or Henry David Thoreau. (Or Herman Melville, for that matter!)
As with most award-winning novelists, Steinbeck's body of work has translated well to film. The 1955 version of East Of Eden remains my vote for the best adaptation; there have been many others, but precious few in recent years. In 1982, David S. Ward, the Oscar-winning writer of The Sting, decided to make his directorial debut with his own adaptation of Steinbeck's 1945 novel Cannery Row. The results weren't all that favorable with critics, and the film was a box-office failure that faded into obscurity shortly thereafter. MGM never bothered to release it on DVD, and it wasn't until Warner Bros. got control of their library that Cannery Row finally saw the light of digital day. Question is, does it remain a failure or has it been misjudged?
Life on the Row has changed considerably since the roaring '20s. What once was a thriving Monterey fishing port is now a virtual dump for hobos, peddlers, lost souls, and hookers. Marine biologist Doc (Nick Nolte, Tropic Thunder) is extremely well-liked by everyone in town and he loves his work, but seems unfulfilled somehow. His void might just be filled with the arrival of sexy Suzy DeSoto (Debra Winger, An Officer and a Gentleman), a drifter who has no choice but to take the only job in town: a prostitute for the Bear Flag Restaurant, run by the upbeat Fauna (Audra Lindley, Three's Company). Suzy takes a liking to Doc—and, needless to say, vice versa—even though she has no clue why this ex-baseball player is acting like a recluse, and he has no clue why she stays being a floozy.
The budding romance between Doc and Suzy (along with the town's reaction) makes up the majority of the film's narrative. Cannery Row is more uneven than cohesive (Ward also incorporated elements from Steinbeck's sequel Sweet Thursday), as it mostly comprised of a string of vignettes. Still, many of them contain so much charm and whimsy that one is willing to overlook the shaky scene transitions. The two endearing stars also do much to carry this film a long way and overcome other weaknesses. Nick Nolte usually plays gruff, tough characters and here he's never been more appealing. Debra Winger (one of my all-time favorite actresses), is incredibly lovely, selling her kooky character with absolute irresistibility. And the late Audra Lindley—best known as the sex-hungry Mrs. Roper—has a truly plum part as the Bear Flag's madam.
Despite its familiar comic and romantic sensibilities, Cannery Row works best as a period picture. The late Richard MacDonald triumphantly (and vividly) re-creates the grimy, Depression-era Row on a large sound stage, with lots of puddled streets, rundown shops and muddy alleys. The film also benefits from Sven Nykvist's gentle cinematography, Ruth Meyer's costumes, and a sonorous narration by the legendary John Huston. This is what period films are all about: transporting us to another time and place, and Cannery Row gives a visual authenticity to an area that is long gone. (The strip of Cannery Row still exists in Monterey, but the sardine-canning establishments are long-gone and now it's largely a marine sanctuary.)
Yet, even with all that praise, for some reason the movie still misses greatness by a few notches. At two hours, Cannery Row feels longer than it should be, and it's aggravating how some of the supporting characters seem to disappear and re-appear after brief introductions. On the other hand, the real reason the DVD itself suffers is due to no special features aside from a theatrical trailer. Part of the reason for this might be due to the mild controversy that erupted after Raquel Welch—originally cast as Suzy—was fired after almost a week (she sued in the mid-80s and won). Still, there's no excuse why Ward can't come out to do an audio commentary or even Nolte and Winger doing a featurette. Alas, all Warner Bros. gives us is a soft, occasionally grainy print that seems to be a marginally scrubbed VHS copy. Nice, but nothing special, like the mono soundtrack and optional English & French subtitles.
Shortcomings aside, Cannery Row is still worth a look, whether you're
a fan of Steinbeck or not. The court finds the film not guilty, but Warner Bros.
is charged with bare-bones buffoonery. Now, time for a beer milkshake…
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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