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For, Friday, Nov. 9, 2018

EDITOR’S NOTE: As a longtime John Steinbeck fan I was happy to see a film adaptation of ‘Cannery Row,’ and I enjoyed the stylized result. Apparently I’m not alone since Warner Archive has seen fit to reissue the film on DVD. Here’s my review, published Feb. 19, 1982.

There is a sweetness, a fantasy-like quality to the latest film treatment of John Steinbeck’s work that will either grab your sense of old-fashioned movie style or leave you behind.

“Cannery Row” is not anything like the gritty, realistic films we are used to today, but in its own way this picture seems to yearn for the naive innocence of another era.

Appropriately enough, it’s a period piece, with lovable winos and prostitutes-with-hearts-of-gold, all gentle, harmless characters whose interrelationships are at the core of their existence.

And the center of their attention is Doc (Nick Nolte), a marine biologist who collects octopi form the nearby Monterey, Calif., oceanside and is going to write that very important paper … someday.

Life is fairly routine among the low-lifes and derelicts of “The Row” until Suzy (Debra Winger) floats into town. Where she comes from or who she really is, is rather vague, but in she strides looking for work. And wouldn’t you know it, the only job she can get is in the local bordello?

That gets her off to a shaky start with Doc, who likes the ladies well enough but isn’t sure he wants to be attracted to one of them.


             Nick Nolte, Debra Winger, 'Cannery Row'

Sure enough, though, once she and Doc get past an awkward introduction, they’re fighting and scrapping — and you just know he and Suzy are falling in love.

That’s the way old Hollywood often worked; the more a couple fought, the quicker they were falling in love.

“Cannery Row” is an episodic series of bittersweet comic vignettes, with a good baker’s dozen worth of memorable scenes: the wild frog hunt in the swamp, followed by the local bums using the frogs as money in a local store; the dance sequence with Suzy and Doc in a game of one-upmanship; the party where everyone dresses up as trees or Snow White characters. … And so it goes.

Many of the supporting performances in this picture are worth noting, including Audra Lindley (Mrs. Roper in TV’s “Three’s Company” and “The Ropers”) as Fauna, the local Madame, and M. Emmet Walsh as Mack, leader of the hobos. But the show is nearly stolen by Frank McRae as Hazel, a giant of a man with the mind of a child — a less lethal version of Steinbeck’s Lenny in “Of Mice and Men.” McRae is a thorough delight and every scene he has is worth noting — especially when he comes up with a solution to the rift between Doc and Suzy.


M. Emmett Walsh, center, and the denizens of 'Cannery Row.'

In the leads, Nick Nolte and Debra Winger are both superb. Nolte has a childlike quality that lends itself nicely to Doc, a man with a mysterious past, and Winger, who was John Travolta’s wife in “Urban Cowboy,” has an innocence here that seems genuine, though there lurks beneath a feisty sensuousness that is less obvious. She also has the most appealing, unique voice to hit the screen since Jean Arthur, though Winger’s is more throaty.

“Cannery Row” also boasts a fine musical score, thrifty direction (a debut in that effort) by scriptor David Ward (“The Sting”), and luxurious photography by Sven Nykvist (who does most of Ingmar Bergman’s films).

The major drawback here is the set design and some obvious background projection. The set is very stylized and obviously a soundstage, and though it is original, it tends to feel claustrophobic after a while. But the real problem comes when location shots of Doc out in the water are shown. They are so gorgeous and open, that the contrast just overwhelms the set work.

Despite that, though, “Cannery Row” (rated PG for profanity and a scene of Winger undressing in a window) is a delightful, innocent romantic comedy.