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Some funny folk know
Where to go,
Even though
There aren’t any canners on Cannery Row.

‘Tis not a disgrace
To embrace
Such a place.
You’ll see when you meet these new friends face to face.

In this blithe domain,
It is vain
To be sane.
Just mix with the locals, and they’ll entertain.
Rating: PG (would probably be PG-13 nowadays, due to profanity)

My VC has often mentioned how much she enjoys this film and how she likes it more with every viewing, but somehow I had never gotten around to seeing it for myself…until now. Adapted from John Steinbeck’s book Cannery Row and (to a greater extent) its sequel Sweet Thursday, this Depression-era charmer has all the quirk of a cult classic, though it isn’t one to my knowledge. The actual storyline, set on the California coastline, is rather thin, and instead the film relies on humorous vignettes, establishing its cast of lovably screwed-up characters and letting them interact as only amiable neighbors can.

There’s Doc (Nick Nolte in one of the few roles I’ve seen of his before his “grizzled old man” makeover), the benevolent marine biologist who has special plans for some captured octopi. There’s Mack (M. Emmet Walsh), the leader of a quintet of goodhearted bums, and Hazel (Frank McRae), the anxious dimwit fated to become President of the United States but who may be wiser than even he knows. There’s Joseph and Mary, owner of the local grocery who happens to accept frogs as currency (and yes, that’s the name of one man). There’s Fauna, proprietress of Cannery Row’s friendly neighborhood brothel, and the Seer, a homeless codger who has visions and plays his trumpet to the rising sun. And then there’s Suzy (Debra Winger, possibly at her prettiest), the newcomer in need of a roof, a job, and maybe a little love.

All these colorful personalities bounce off each other perfectly, aided by the droll narration of John Huston himself (known to me as Gandalf in the Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit) Thus, they do have quite a bit of waggish fun: party fiascoes, unprecedented frog hunts, dance challenges, beer milkshakes, rattlesnake conversations, and so on. Where else are you going to hear a line like “A man sentenced to be President of the United States could not go to a party as a dwarf”? In addition, Cannery Row itself happens to be an ideal backdrop for these amusing misadventures, a huge set (which is clearly a set) of dirty inlets beneath salt-encrusted boardwalks and nocturnal serenades of bluesy jazz, although there’s a good deal of classical and swing music too.

By the end, the jocularity gives way to some buried guilt and dark possibilities, yet the story’s irresistible charm still wins out. Both my VC and I were left smiling as the credits rolled, satisfied that this endearing microcosm of friendliness and romance had found its “greased grooves.”

Best line: (Hazel) “I love Doc! He was a character witness for me, and I ain’t got no character.”

VC’s best line: (Suzy, to Doc) “Look, every time I talk to you, I get more confused. I like you just fine when you’re not around.”

Rank: List-Worthy

© 2015 S. G. Liput

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