by Anthony King
I have an admission: I've never read John Steinbeck. Sure, I know Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, and Grapes of Wrath. The films are great. The novels, I'm sure, are out of this world. From the films I can see that Steinbeck knows how to build worlds, focusing in on specific communities and characters. In Mice we have George and Lennie and their search for work. Eden follows two families primarily based in Salinas, CA. In Grapes we follow the Joads, tenant farmers who make the trek from the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma to the rich farmlands of California. In Cannery Row, we're once again focused on a specific community – very specific this time around – and the characters within.
Adapted for the screen and directed by David S. Ward, Cannery Row tells the story of the small section of Monterey, CA, along the shoreline, where sardine canning factories and their mighty workforce reigned supreme. What was once a booming industrial neighborhood filled to the brim with blue collar workers is now a derelict ghost town whose only inhabitants are prostitutes, homeless ex-factory workers, a trumpet-playing soothsayer, and a self-proclaimed marine biologist. The main hook of the film is a budding and oft-interrupted romance between the marine biologist and a failed prostitute, but like most of Steinbeck's work, several characters on Cannery Row get their time in the spotlight.
Steinbeck's novel of the same name is based on the real life Cannery Row of Monterey and the characters that lived within. As Suzy is interviewing for a job at the brothel, Fauna tells her, “One of the reasons people live on the row is they don’t wanna be known.” This one line tells us everything we need to know about everyone that lives here. Doc could easily move up north, get a comfortable job at a university, live in a nice neighborhood surrounded by nice people. He chooses to stay on the row, though, because he doesn't want to be known. Deep down, I think this is what most of us want. In all of us dwells great potential to do great things; a bright future lies ahead. But most of us don't actually want that. Like Doc, and given the opportunity, I think we'd shirk that potential and those responsibilities and live that simple life with simple people.
I urge everyone reading to watch Cannery Row as soon as possible. You can get the Warner Archive Blu-ray or stream it on HBO Max, and after 18 months of a pandemic I think it would do you some good. The film (and the novel, I assume) ends with the narrator saying, “Once again, the world was spinning in greased grooves.” And I know that's what we're all striving for.