But Cannery Row in Monterey, California is the first location I visited inspired by a literary source. Author John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath) wrote Cannery Row and Sweet Tuesday about the colorful derelicts that inhabited a section of the Central California coastal town in the 1940's. At its peak, Cannery Row was the fish cannery capital of the world. But when the sardines got fished out, the canneries closed and hard times fell upon Cannery Row. I had never heard of Cannery Row until one spring vacation in the mid-80's when my then girlfriend (now wife) took me to Monterey.
I recently went back to Cannery Row a couple of years ago. Even more enchanted with the name and its past, I returned home and read Steinbeck's first book Cannery Row. It's a funny, sweet, quirky short novella that captures the spirit of Cannery Row and the people who lived there. Naturally, a film was made based on the two Steinbeck books called CANNERY ROW and I decided it was time to see if these Steinbeck stories could translate to film.
I was actually interested in David S. Ward's film of CANNERY ROW (1982) when it was filming in the early 80s as one of my favorite actresses Raquel Welch was originally cast to star in the film opposite Nick Nolte. But MGM, the studio that bankrolled the film fired Welch early in the shoot for showing up late to work and replaced her with a younger actress Debra Winger (AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN). Welch would sue MGM (she eventually won the lawsuit). When Welch was let go, my interest in CANNERY ROW disappeared.
Director Ward was the perfect choice as writer/director of CANNERY ROW as Ward had captured the Depression era so well as the screenwriter of the hugely popular THE STING (1973) directed by George Roy Hill and starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Redford would seem like the perfect actor to play Doc (based by Steinbeck on real life Cannery Row marine biologist and friend Ed Ricketts) but Ward cast Nick Nolte as Doc instead. Nolte is a bit gruffer than Redford but he's surprisingly understated as the restless, unfulfilled Doc. It's perfect that director John Huston (TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE) is the narrator for CANNERY ROW. Huston brings a touch of Steinbeck to the narration and one wonders how this film might have turned out if Huston had ever wanted to make the film maybe twenty years earlier.
CANNERY ROW centers around Doc (Nick Nolte), former baseball player turned marine biologist who works out of Cannery Row, studying and collecting aquatic specimens to sell to colleges and museums. Doc is beloved by the town's outcasts which includes a group of out of work bums led by Mack (M. Emmett Walsh) and the giant man child Hazel (Frank McRae); Fauna Flood (Audra Lindley), madam to the only brothel and hotel in town called the Bear Flag Lodge; the Seer (Sunshine Parker), an enigmatic hobo with a mysterious connection to Doc; and Joseph and Mary (Santos Morales), the town grocer who will barter for anything. Doc's world is turned upside down when he meets Suzy Desoto (Debra Winger), a pretty young drifter from Indiana who arrives on Cannery Row looking for work.
Suzy convinces Fauna to add her to her stable of prostitutes but Suzy quickly realizes she's not cut out for that line of work. Doc and Suzy first meet at Joseph and Mary's store. Fauna notices a connection between them. Fauna asks Doc to treat Suzy like a lady, give her some confidence so maybe she'll leave the hotel. Doc and Suzy begin an unlikely relationship. Doc likes Suzy's feistiness. Suzy is intrigued by Doc's past. She discovers that Doc used to be a baseball player but quit under mysterious circumstances. Doc and Suzy are perfect for each other if they weren't so stubborn and set in their ways. As Doc says, "the only thing we have in common is that we're wrong for each other." They try dancing with mixed results. Doc takes Suzy out to a nice dinner and then a romantic walk on the beach. But Doc puts up his guard again when he returns from the tide pools the next day to find his lab all cleaned up by Suzy.
Mack wants to do something nice for Doc. He and the other hobos Hughie (Tom Mahoney), Jones (John Malloy), Eddie (James Keane), and Hazel decide to throw a surprise party for Doc. But since they're all penniless, they need money. Mack sends Hazel to ask Doc if he needs any aquatic animals captured to sell to the university. Doc offers Mack and the boys five cents for every live frog they catch for him. Mack and the boys head out one night to a nearby pond on the great frog expedition where they corral a heap of frogs. With a little money in their pockets now, Mack and the boys and Fauna and the girls decorate his laboratory and choose a costume theme (Snow White and the Seven Dwarf's) but the night ends in disaster. First, Doc angers Suzy when he appears embarrassed to take her with him to an upcoming conference. Then, a group of fraternity boys from Monterrey College show up to the party, igniting a fight that destroys Doc's home and laboratory.
Doc returns the next morning to find his place in shambles. After punching Mack, he forgives him and cleans up the mess. A gloom falls over Cannery Row. Suzy moves out of the Bear Lodge and into an abandoned boiler. Doc tries to apologize to Suzy but she says she forgives him and apparently has moved on, working at the Golden Poppy as a waitress. It looks like Doc and Suzy will never be a couple until Hazel comes up with a most unorthodox plan that brings Doc and Suzy together and order back to the bums and prostitutes that make up Cannery Row.
CANNERY ROW the movie does not live up to Cannery Row the book for me but director/writer Ward captures pieces of magic from the two Steinbeck books. You really sense Doc and Suzy are restless souls, two people meant for each other if they could just put aside their stubbornness. The best moment of the book Cannery Row is the great frog expedition and Ward makes sure to include that pivotal comic scene in the film. The sequences of Doc exploring the Monterey tidal pools are beautiful (CANNERY ROW was photographed by Sven Nykvist who also worked with the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman). The tide pools are like Doc's altar where he most feels in harmony with nature. Steinbeck's eccentric characters from Cannery Row and Sweet Tuesday manage to leap from the pages and onto the screen in CANNERY ROW from Doc and Suzy to Mack and Fauna.
If anything, CANNERY ROW is missing some star power. Nolte and Winger are fantastic and have great chemistry (both with warm husky voices) but neither was a bona fide movie star when CANNERY ROW was released (Nolte would hit it big the same year with 48 HOURS). I liked Nolte's performance but I wonder if Redford or Harrison Ford had played Doc could the film have done better commercially. Ironically, marine biologist Doc's wardrobe (fedora, leather jacket) made me think of archaeologist Indiana Jones (who appeared for the first time a year earlier in 1981's RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK). Winger would have a big year in 1982 with CANNERY ROW and AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN but I like her performance in CANNERY ROW a great deal more. I like her toughness yet vulnerability. Winger has never looked more beautiful and as much as it pains me to admit it, she probably was a better choice than Raquel Welch.
There are similarities and themes between CANNERY ROW and some of John Steinbeck's other books. The man child Hazel in CANNERY ROW is described as having "the mind of a small boy grafted to the body of a bull." Hazel resembles a slightly gentler version of Lennie, the large child-like migrant worker from Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Family is important in Steinbeck's stories. We all remember the persevering Joad family from Steinbeck's great American novel The Grapes of Wrath. The inhabitants of Cannery Row are family. Doc the surrogate father, Fauna the surrogate mother and the bums and prostitutes their children. Man's compassion for one another is another Steinbeck theme. Whether it's George sticking with his large doomed buddy Lennie in Of Mice and Men, the generosity of strangers to the Joad family in California in The Grapes of Wrath or Doc bringing food and building a home for the Seer in CANNERY ROW, compassion can be found in the most unlikely and horrible circumstances. And of course, Steinbeck set many of his novels in the Salinas Valley of Central California where he was born and grew up. CANNERY ROW takes place in and near Salinas Valley.
CANNERY ROW is David S. Ward's directorial debut. As mentioned, he wrote THE STING but he would have to wait almost a decade to get his first shot at directing. Like THE STING, CANNERY ROW has many colorful characters. Ward seems drawn to a large array of players. Ward would go on to write and direct the baseball comedy MAJOR LEAGUE (1989) which would also have a menagerie of eccentric characters played by Charlie Sheen, Corbin Bernsen, and Tom Berenger. Ward's love of baseball is foreshadowed in CANNERY ROW. I don't recall any baseball stuff in the book Cannery Row but it might be from Sweet Tuesday or Ward created that part himself (CrazyFilmGuy will investigate). We learn Doc was a pitcher for a couple of years in the major leagues before a horrible incident during a game made him quit. Suzy listened to baseball games on the radio growing up. Director Ward even stages a baseball/softball game with Mack and the boys and some of Fauna's girls (a precursor to 1992's A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN that featured women in WWII playing baseball).
Like with history, there's something about visiting the real life location where a film or book is set that I find thrilling. For a brief moment, the intersection between reality and fiction is briefly connected. Whether you read the book or watch CANNERY ROW, go visit the charming sea town of Monterey, California. Close your eyes and you might just hear Mack and the boys over at Doc's laboratory, singing and laughing with Fauna and her girls, celebrating their friendship with Doc down on Cannery Row.