Cannery Row is the kind of movie that Warner Archive exists to release. When dealing with major studios that have deep libraries, so many titles get lost in the mix. After all, how many films can you release at once? They want the bigger releases to street, but everyone that releases movies has personal favorites. Then, there are the oddballs.
John Steinbeck adaptations are so uncommon that this film was the last major theatrical release for these efforts. Adapting Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday into a single narrative makes so much sense. Making such a movie at the start of the 1980s looks bizarre in historical hindsight.
The film went into production months after Heaven’s Gate died a miserable death at the box office. More and more period adaptations would eat a fart at the box office, while Cannery Row stared down its own production troubles. Just read about how Raquel Welch sued the production and won over being dumped in favor of Debra Winger. Pair that up with the fact that it was a major 70s screenwriter’s directorial debut.
There are many that don’t want to look at stats, financial history and real world math with film productions. But, MGM went into this movie making a contemporary bomb. Hindsight is 20/20 and failed attempts at reading period audiences creates many cult classics. Yet, Cannery Row has to be one of the most self contained cult classics ever made.
Directed by future Major League auteur David S. Ward, Cannery Row tries to make a coherent native out of two related Steinbeck novels. Honestly, the effort is to be praised. When productions made decades after a story has been completed can put a definitive stamp on a story, it’s pitch perfect. I mean, it’s not like anyone is clamoring for a Steinbeck Cinematic Universe with sprawling phases of movies.
Nick Nolte is one of the most underrated actors of the last 45 years. His take on Doc feels intertwined with what Steinbeck imagined for the character. He’s an outsider, yet he belongs as a leader figure among the vagrants of Cannery Row. As the film carries on, the audience learns that Doc was once a baseball pitcher.
It’s not a big WOW moment, but more of a button on a failed career. Frank McRae and M. Emmet Walsh plays the lead faces of the other vagrants, but most of their character is spent being described in the John Huston narration. You get the typical Steinbeck mental deficient man mountain and a failed loner. Sound familiar?
Debra Winger gets a taste of the same treatment, but with a new Hollywood twist. Most of the women that live in Cannery Row either work in food service or sex work. Winger can’t get a job that pays the bills unless she becomes a prostitute. But, the madam is looking for a new trainee. Why is she looking for an apprentice just because an outsider woman came into the mix?
Well, it’s because the story demanded it to relate to a wide audience. It’s hard to spin a romance to an early 80s movie going public about an amateur marine biologist and a friendly rookie hooker. But, going against that also betrays what Steinbeck was trying to do in these two novels. The story at its base level is about love existing in the gutter. But, there is no gutter in this movie. Just a really stylized Skid Row that only existed in the minds of Steinbeck fans.
Warner Archive created a 1080p transfer that stands among the brightest I’ve seen for Cannery Row. Due to the cinematography, it’s one of those films that was famous for looking super dark back in the VHS days. This is one of those classic release that I wish we had some special features. However, due to its famed history of bombing at the Box Office, I get why it doesn’t have much. Make sure to watch this oddball film that Warner Archive labored with love to debut on Blu-ray.