Walkabout recommends: Cannery Row

So we’re starting a new topic here, one that I’ve been meaning to get to for months, and that is, recommendations of films that I like a lot but aren’t too well known. The downside of this is, it might be a little difficult to locate a copy or streaming service that has it – but that’s not my problem.

cover art for Cannery RowWe’re starting with Cannery Row, a 1982 film with Nick Nolte and Debra Winger and, really, a fantastic cast of characters, directed by David S. Ward. Right away I must insert some basic information, especially if you already recognize the title, because the film is based on two novels by John Steinbeck, Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. I had the grave misfortune to have read two of Steinbeck’s novels in high school, The Red Pony and The Pearl, and they were together responsible for my absolute loathing of Steinbeck as an author; I have not read either of his two “classic” works and will never do so, based on this experience, and my third-hand knowledge of one of them gives me no confidence that it was any different from these two poxes on literature. I have also not read either of the books that this film is based upon (and don’t intend to,) but I’m fairly comfortable with saying this is a typical case of how loosely Hollywood can “base” a story from a source. However, this time I suspect it paid off very well.

Cannery Row is set during the mid-twentieth century in Monterey, California, right after it was beset by the collapse of the fishing and canning industries, now populated almost entirely by those down on their luck – very Steinbeckian – yet the mood is undeniably bright and the humor pervasive, so you understand why I feel this is less than an accurate take on his novels. The film is narrated with deft skill by John Huston, who provides a voice of superior timbre with a pleasant tongue-in-cheek overtone, his relaxed delivery establishing the mood as much as the background music and the sets themselves. Yet virtually everyone in the entire cast is a distinct and memorable character, and while the primary focus is on the story of the top-billed, this plotline isn’t overwhelming or cloying, and numerous subplots make this more enjoyable altogether; Frank McRae’s performance as Hazel is superb, likely my favorite among all the varied parts that he’s played.

There’s a subtle aspect that comes through, for which David Ward deserves recognition: the residents of Cannery Row are all human, with backstories often only hinted at. M. Emmet Walsh’s character Mack, homeless and dressed primarily in worn long johns, is nonetheless a virtuoso on the piano, reminding us that anyone might fall on hard times. Moreover, they’re all uncommonly generous and kind-hearted, while residing in circumstances where we could easily expect anything but; contrasted against the frequent Gorden Gekko types prevalent in so many films, people who should have no reason to be as selfish and competitive as they are, the gang within Cannery Row are reminders of how value should be measured.

The main plot involves the complicated and clumsy courtship between Doc (Nolte) and Suzy (Winger,) both unwilling to be themselves in front of the other but also unsure of exactly who they should be, and both carry this awkwardness believably, as if suddenly finding themselves back in high school – there’s a scene where Suzy is peeking in Doc’s windows to see if he’s home, and the emotions that she conveys through simple body English are distinct. You can also see Doc’s frustration as he subconsciously wonders if he’s on the Row by choice (as a practicing marine biologist) or misfortune, deciding on the title of his potential scientific paper before he’s even determined what it’s about. Suzy, on the other hand, attempts to maintain an air of control, though her sudden defensive sarcasm hints at a more vulnerable interior, and her vocal tremors say more than her dialogue. Throughout all of this, however, runs the daily thread of life on Cannery Row, and the humor found therein is what makes this movie work. Huston’s dramatic narration of Mack and The Boys’ fundraising efforts is pure gold, yet the aftermath doesn’t disappoint either.

There are only two negatives that I offer regarding the movie. The first is, while Fauna (played excellently by Audrey Landers) shows a notable savvy regarding people and situations, her plotting for the party is awkward and juvenile, feeling quite out of place. Second, the unnamed music that serves as the ‘couple’s theme,’ bearing more than a passing resemblance to ‘Stormy Weather,’ occurs a little too often despite being well-matched to the film.

There’s drama, and tragedy, but the film is neither; it remains unpredictable, while not openly defying such plotlines. It doesn’t leave one pondering anything underlying, but it delivers a pleasant and watchable story, entertaining without being exhilarating or heart-rending; a good date movie. Check it out.

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