Expectations for the cinematic adaptation of John Steinbeck’s famous novel Cannery Row were high. It marked the directorial debut of David S. Ward, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of The Sting (1973) and starred Nick Nolte and Debra Winger. He was coming off the disappointing Heart Beat (1980) while she was fresh from the modestly successful Urban Cowboy (1980). However, Steinbeck purists were upset that the film was a fusion of Cannery Row and its sequel Sweet Thursday with an emphasis on the latter, jettisoning the darker tone of the former for a more upbeat vibe. The film’s image was tarnished by a highly publicized lawsuit launched by Raquel Welch who had been fired after only five days of filming and replaced by Winger.
Critics and movie-going audiences were put off by the film’s stylized look (it was shot mainly on two massive soundstages) and optimistic tone resulting in poor box office results. However, time has been kind to this intriguing film, which has aged surprisingly well, anchored by sweet, funny performances from Nolte and Winger, and featuring incredibly detailed set design and absolutely gorgeous cinematography. This hermetically-sealed world recalls other stylized throwbacks to the classic Hollywood era fused with the Movie Brat sensibility that came out around the same time, chief among them Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977) and Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart (1982) that, like Cannery Row (1982), were costly flops, but have enjoyed critical re-evaluation over the years with the exception of the latter, which remains criminally overlooked.
After the local fishing industry dried up and most of its denizens left, the remnants hang on living their lives in their own eccentric ways. Take Doc (Nick Nolte) for example. He’s a marine biologist that collects aquatic animals and sells them off to colleges and museums to make ends meet. He’s friends with Mack (M. Emmet Walsh) and his fellow derelicts who have “no family, no money and no ambition,” chief among them, Hazel (Frank McRae), the youngest and a man left with the “slightly diminished capacity,” and “the mind of a small boy grafted to the body of a bull,” as the wizened omniscient narrator (John Huston with a voice made for voiceover narration) informs us. They’re a bunch of lovable, grubby drunks, the kind that only exist in films of this sort.
Doc’s latest project is collecting octopi and studying them with the hopes of writing and then delivering a paper at the Congress of Marine Biologists in San Francisco. He sees it as making a mark on society even if it’s “only a scribble.” I like that the film takes the time to show him at work, wading in among the rocks along the shore uncovering marine life to study and then back at his place observing it all. Then, one day, Suzy (Debra Winger) comes into town looking for work. She’s a beautiful young woman that catches Doc’s eye. Not finding much luck at the local diner, she falls in with the prostitutes at the nearby brothel and is mentored by Fauna (Audra Lindley), the woman who runs the place and schools Suzy in their ways.
Pretty soon, a turbulent romance develops between Doc and Suzy. Their initial meet-cute is rather amusing as he suddenly gets tongue-tied around her, dazzled by her beauty. The awkward way Nick Nolte plays it is quite funny. Debra Winger matches him in adorable awkwardness as Suzy tells Doc a story about a guy she once knew who constantly talked about ordering a beer milkshake at a drive-in, but never did. The quirky little facial expression she gives at the end of unsuccessfully telling the story is a nice bit of comedy that acts as visual punctuation.
As he demonstrated with North Dallas Forty (1979), Nolte has a knack for comedy if given the right material. The scene where he orders and then tries a beer milkshake is a nice bit of understated comedy. The snappy exchanges of dialogue he has with Winger evoke old school Hollywood comedies much better than the awful, forced attempt at such with the later wannabe screwball comedy I Love Trouble (1994). In that film, he had zero chemistry with leading lady Julia Roberts. This is not the case with Winger in Cannery Row. Her and Nolte make for an unlikely romantic couple, but they make it work and you can sense their chemistry right from Doc and Suzy’s initial meeting by the way they look at each other. These characters are classic opposites attract couple who get off on the wrong foot when they argue over their respective lifestyles.
At this point in her career, Winger was on the cusp of mainstream success when she suffered a minor setback with the commercial and critical failure of this film. No matter, she is very good in Cannery Row, playing a fiercely independent woman who works long enough at the brothel so that she has the money to get her own place. With her good looks and distinctive scratchy voice, it is easy to see why Nolte’s Doc falls for Suzy’s scruffy charms. The scene that cements it is when Doc sneaks into the brothel to apologize to Suzy and they end up getting into another argument. During a lull, a catchy Bob Crosby tune comes on and Doc challenges her to dance with him. She puts on “In the Mood.” Their argument continues, but physically as they try to impress each other with their dancing abilities. Winger, in particular, impresses with her knack for physical comedy as Suzy repeatedly tries to pull off the “Over the Rainbow” dance move. The repeated failed attempts look as painful as they must’ve been for the actress, but she commits to it completely every time. Now, that’s dedication.
Cannery Row is a stunning film to look at with some frames composed like a something out of a painting. For example, there is a sequence where Mack and the boys go on an expedition to capture a bunch of frogs at night that is visually-arresting as it occurs during a full moon in a fog-enshrouded marshland, which creates a distinctive atmosphere quickly offset by several grown men leaping and splashing around like crazy. In addition, there is a shot early on in the film of Suzy walking through Cannery Row and in the background is a detailed matte painting showing the abandoned canneries against a cloud-filled sky at dusk. The use of rear projection is glaringly obvious in a few scenes, but this only adds to the stylized look of the film.
This is in turn complimented by sets filled with incredible attention to period detail that help flesh out this rich, colorful world. For example, later on in the film, Suzy moves into a large, abandoned boiler, transforming it into a cozy living space with her own hands and ingenuity. The finished product is an inspired bit of set design. Much like, New York, New York and One from the Heart, Cannery Row was praised for its look and criticized for being a failed experiment in style over substance. The problem these films faced was that people were still riding the residual high of the 1970s, which tended to champion gritty realism, breaking away from the old studio system of filming on backlots. Mainstream audiences weren’t ready for a throwback to that era and rejected what these filmmakers were trying to do.
First published in 1945, John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row was considered a difficult novel to adapt, but screenwriter David S. Ward found a way by combining it with the sequel Sweet Thursday. His screenplay for Cannery Row had made the rounds in Hollywood for three years and had been turned down by every studio twice. Even though it was highly regarded, the script didn’t follow the tried and true formula of a box office hit and nobody wanted to risk $10 million on a first-time director.
Successful movie producer Michael Phillips had worked on hits like The Sting and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and wanted to give his best friend Ward the opportunity to direct his script for Cannery Row. Ward had aspirations for the job, but his reputation had been tarnished when several plagiarism suits were brought against him after he won the Academy Award for The Sting. The studio settled them out of court, but the whole experience left a bad taste in his mouth. It took a year to acquire the film rights to both of Steinbeck’s novels, costing $50,000.
While developing Cannery Row, Ward pictured Paul Newman as Doc. The actor was interested and made several rewrite suggestions for the script, which Ward indulged for a year until Newman finally said no. Several other movie stars, including Jack Nicholson, turned down the role until one studio brought Nick Nolte on board. Nolte had wanted to play Doc for years, but thought he was too young until he turned 40. By the fall of 1979, Phillips and Ward were ready to make the film with anyone, but continued to hold out hope. This came in the form of then-new head of MGM David Begelman who came across Ward’s script in January 1980. He was enticed by the well-written script and the promise of Nolte as the lead. Known for being decisive, Begelman gave it the greenlight with a budget of $10.6 million. It didn’t hurt that the studio had a light schedule and he was looking for films to fill it.
Production designer Richard MacDonald spent two months in Monterey to see if it was feasible to shoot on location. It would have cost $2.5 million to restore the area to the state of decay depicted in the novel. Also, local merchants demanded sizable fees to shoot on their property. MacDonald concluded that the film should be made on the MGM backlot. It took him months to convince Phillips and Ward because backlot shooting had fallen out of fashion since the 1960s. MacDonald knew that Stage 30 was ideal as it had been built over a giant water tank and this would allow them to recreate the seaside town. He worked on a stage plan and created stunning color sketches of sets that eventually convinced Phillips and Ward to go that route. MacDonald hired a crew and sets began to be constructed. For him, the benefits of shooting on a soundstage were significant: “You can have whatever weather you want for however long you want. It’s a tremendous advantage. You don’t have to wait for four minutes of sunset. You can have sunset every day for a week.”
Phillips and Ward gave Raquel Welch a copy of the script and she read for the role of Suzy. The veteran actress was eager to prove that she could act and had been holding out for the right part for three years. They were impressed with her passion and Ward realized that he would have to rewrite the part because Welch was considerably older than the character. He knew that to get the film made it needed two recognizable lead actors. They had already considered Bo Derek, Liza Minnelli and Olivia Newton-John. With time running out, they finally decided to go with Welch. However, Begelman wanted her to do a nude scene, which not only surprised her (she had never done one before), but also Phillips and Ward who couldn’t recall such a scene in the script. Welch wanted to play the role so much that she swallowed her pride and agreed to do it.
Principal photography was scheduled to begin just after Labor Day, but the actors’ strike occurred from July to October. MacDonald used this time to get the finest craftsmen to build the sets, which included six working aquariums populated with exotic fish, backdrops for ten bridges, a Victorian brothel, and a fully stocked 1945-era grocery store. The high quality attention to detail attracted top talent like Sven Nykvist, Ingmar Bergman’s regular cinematographer, and editor David Bretherton, who won an Oscar for Cabaret (1972).
After the first three weeks of principal photography, Welch was fired for breach of contract. Some criticism labeled her a diva, which she denied, claiming that during her time she never shot a major dialogue scene and was never used when called. Ward admitted that Welch was a “casting mistake,” and “wasn’t delivering a performance I could live with.” Welch argued if that was the case then why didn’t the filmmakers realize it over the four weeks of pre-production? The actress ended up suing MGM for more than $24 million for breach of contract and eventually won.
If that wasn’t bad enough, early on during filming, Ward was under pressure from the studio when he fell behind schedule after the first week. Begelman felt that Ward was directing too slowly and Nolte was out of shape and looked disheveled. Doc was an ex-baseball player turned marine biologist and to prepare for the role, Nolte took spring training with the California Angels. He also read all of Steinbeck’s work, spent time with a marine biologist in order to gain insight into his character, and even slept on the set one night a week. After he was told to shape up, the actor went to the wardrobe department and put on a man’s girdle and a pair of pants two sizes too big. When he showed up on set, Phillips thought Nolte had lost weight.
Debra Winger had originally read for the role of Suzy and been turned down much to her disappointment. A few months later, after moving to New York City, she was offered the part. She joined the production immediately and during the first week she threw up so much that the actress lost eight pounds and suffered from anxiety attacks. Winger took a cue from Nolte and also slept on the set several times. A competitive spirit developed between the two that included pulling pranks on each other.
Cannery Row received mixed to negative reviews from critics that notably cited the exemplary work from production designer Richard MacDonald and cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Roger Ebert gave it two-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “And Nolte and Winger are almost able to make their relationship work, if only it didn’t seem scripted out of old country songs and lonely heart columns. It’s tough to pull of a movie like this, in the semi-cynical 1980s.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Even Steinbeck’s errantly sentimental fictions, however, deserve better than the awful fancies of this film.” The Washington Post’s Gary Arnold felt that it was “expendable and creaky, a lavishly mounted antique.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, “Ward has failed to find for the production a pictorial style, and has allowed photographer Sven Nykvist’s camera to run away with its pretty self – film as an act of visual masturbation.”
Cannery Row seems even more of an anomaly now, but in a refreshing way. It is one of those rare films that features a cinematic world I’d want to visit if I could. Ward and his collaborators have created such a richly textured world, with its inviting diners and sun-kissed rocky shore, and populated it with all kinds of vivid, colorful people. It’s a rare comedy where you really feel like you’ve been on a journey with these characters, seen them experience ups and downs, and come out on the other side so that they are different then when we first met them. They say ignorance is bliss so maybe Cannery Row works best if you haven’t read Steinbeck’s novel and just let the film wash over you. Filled with eccentric characters who live carefree lives, the film version has little pretense towards reality and perhaps this is what turned off critics and audiences back in the day, having just come out of the ‘70s, a decade populated by realistic fare. Ward’s film is anything but that. There is also a kind of good-natured innocence that permeates throughout that might not have appealed to a more cynical age.
Harmetz, Aljean. “His Hometown Now Likes John Steinbeck Better.” The New York Times. February 9, 1982.
Orth, Maureen. “The Gamblers of Cannery Row.” Rolling Stone. April 2, 1981.
Stabiner, Karen. “A Film Set Restores Steinbeck’s World.” The New York Times. March 15, 1981.