Cannery Row
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Cannery Row

There are some movies that just catch you eye and manage to stay with you for the rest of your life. For me one such film was ‘Cannery Row’. The movie was originally released in 1982 and a couple of years later it appeared on of those new fangled cable TV stations. I ran across it late one night while channel surfing. It was based from two John Steinbeck's novels ‘Cannery Row’ and ‘Sweet Thursday’. Since I enjoyed this author and these works in particular I stuck around to check it out. I was amazed as how well the film maker captured the gentleness and emotional depth of the books. Fro weeks I searched through television listings to see when it would air again and I could use another recent addition to our living room, our first video tape recorder, a grab a copy to keep. It took more than a couple of decades but finally it came out on DVD. The term ‘heart warming’ has been applied to a myriad of movies but in this case it is true. The movie is quirky, gentle, and romantic. It combines drama with comedy in near perfect fashion. Steinbeck was one of the greatest American authors and this film represents his genius better than most films depict an author’s work. It is about regular people who find their own drama and face it with resolve and humor. The movie features two major starts at the beginning of their careers; Nick Nolte and Debra Winger. Nolte gained national recognition with his television role in ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’ and was just breaking into movies with ‘North Dallas Forty’. After this film he would become a star with ’48 Hours’. Winger was fresh off her breakout role in ‘Urban Cowboy. Now after so long has passed Warner Brothers have dug deep into their vaults of classic movies and come up with the DVD of this one. While it will never make a ‘best of list’ and remains somewhat of a cult classic it is demands a place in your home collection.

Back in 1982 David S. Ward was fairly new to providing scripts for films but he was already on the map. He penned the award winning movie ‘The Sting’. After this he would go into sillier projects most notably the ‘Major League’ baseball comedies. He would be hot again with his screenplay for ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ and most recently wrote the script for ‘Flyboy’. He has to be a daunting task to have to come up with a screenplay when the story is based on two novels from a beloved author like Steinbeck. To his credit Ward was more than up to the challenge. The story is a slice of life for a poor community located near the titular ‘Cannery Row’. They are all down on their luck and many would be considered homeless. Adding to the difficulty for Ward is he had to combine two novels into a single coherent and cohesive story. In order to do this Ward had to take some understandable liberties with a few of the basic elements of the novel. There is a touch of time compression here and some plot lines had to be altered significantly or eliminated altogether. What remains is a tale of regular people trying their best to make it through life. There is a sense of community that is rapidly disappearing in our modern society. Many people can live for decades the same neighborhood or apartment building and only know a handful of individuals. Here in Cannery Row everybody knows everyone else and they are constantly in each other’s business; frequently uninvited. This is the heart of this story; people who although unrelated by blood had formed a wacky family unit.

This was Ward’s first time as a director. He would go on to direct several of the sillier screenplays that he wrote plus another couple of light comedies. Here he shows a level of commitment that is wonderful to behold. The pacing of this movie had to be difficult. It is a very episodic story with numerous plots weaving in and out throughout the film. In his script Ward caught the flavor of Steinbeck’s novel by frequently lifting dialogue verbatim form the novels. As the director he brings the essence of Steinbeck’s story to life on the screen. You find yourself drawn into the strange and wonderful world of Cannery Row. Like many of Steinbeck’s works these are people that faced the Great Depression with dignity, community and humor. Considering the economic times we have today this film is as timely as ever. One of the best features of this movie is the incredible narration by one of the greatest actors and directors of all time, John Huston. His voice is like that of a kindly old grandfather telling a bedtime story to the kids. It is warm and reassuring with a touch of lilting humor that surrounds you.

Cannery Row is a small collection of people eking out a meager living anyway then can. One of the inhabitants of the little community is uncharacteristic of the rest, Doc (Nick Nolte). He is well educated with a doctorate in marine biology. It is odd that he is not teaching at some university and prefers the isolation of the Row. Doc makes enough to make ends meet by gathering specimens and selling them to a biology retailer. He also fills his time by doing some independent research on the live and habits of the octopus. The ad hoc leader of the community is Mack (M. Emmet Walsh). He is usually in the company of a few rag tag denizens of the area. Like most people around Mack has been intrigued by the mysterious background of Doc. Doc is always helping out Mack and the guys so Mack wants to do something nice for their friend. They throw a party for Doc that gets out of hand and breaks his prize microscope. Still, Doc is kind and forgiving to the men. Another outspoken member of the group is Fauna (Audra Lindley) a madam at the local hose of ill repute. Her girls may be prostitutes but Fauna cares for them as if they were her own daughters. One day a waif of a young woman comes to Fauna’s looking for work. Suzie (Debra Winger) is so out of place that Fauna cannot see her in this oldest of professions but hires her out of sympathy. It doesn’t take long before Mack and Fauna decides that Suzie and Doc would be perfect together. Initially the matchmaking fails and a despondent Suzie moves out of Fauna’s and makes her home in an old boiler.

This is a slice of life during difficult times. There is no flash here, no momentous events that happen; just life unfolding. It is rare that a treasure of American literature is made into a movie worthy of the name but this one does it.

Posted 12/25/08

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