Page To Screen: Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday

Cannery Row in the 1920s. (Pinterest)

Who’s been to Cannery Row? For those who haven’t, it was a group of fish canneries, flophouses and dive bars on Ocean View Avenue in Monterey, California. It was a tough, wild, colorful place, and its king was marine biologist Ed Ricketts, best friend of John Steinbeck and collector of strange scientific samples.

Of course, all of that is gone now, replaced by restaraunts, shops, hotels, and a really great mirror maze if anyone is so inclined, but if one gets out and away from the tourist trappings, down by McAbee Beach, there are relics to be had and ghosts to be seen. Not literal ghosts, necessarily, but it’s really easy to imagine Ed puttering around and the whistles calling the various factory workers to their jobs. One might even catch a whiff of fresh fish about to become dinner.

Cannery Row in 2020. (

John Steinbeck probably saw this coming, which is why he captured Cannery Row in a 1945 book of the same title, followed by its sequel, Sweet Thursday in 1954. The former didn’t need much in the way of inspiration except Steinbeck walking out of his door and talking to his friends. A native of Salinas, he knew Monterey and its people well. Many of the characters in these books were based on real people, except that in most cases their names were changed.

Steinbeck allowed his stories to germinate for years before putting them into Cannery Row, and what finally drove him to write the book was when he went overseas in 1943 as a war correspondent. According to Steinbeck biographer Susan Shillinglaw, Steinbeck got all kinds of nostalgic for his home and those he left behind. Being Steinbeck, it was time to get writing.

835 Cannery Row, the site of Won Yee’s grocery store, or Lee Chong’s grocery store in Steinbeck’s novel. Yee’s family still owns the building. (Google Maps)

The novel doesn’t have a plot so much as exist to be a gathering place for its characters, much in the same way that the real Pacific Biological Laboratories were a cultural hub for Cannery Row dwellers.. One of them, Mack, is the reader’s conduit. He and his group of guys board at the Palace Flophouse, which is owned by Dora, the local madam. All of the characters hold Doc in high regard and want to do something nice for him, but it doesn’t go the way they plan. In and around the various happenings and general feelings of the place, Mack and his friends try their hardest to make it up to Doc.

Ed Ricketts was the most true to life of anyone in the book, except that Doc liked drinking more than Ed did. Ricketts and Steinbeck had been friends since 1930 and among other adventures, explored the Sea of Cortez together, publishing a book about their expedition in 1941.

Ed Ricketts in Monterey. (SFGATE)

Ricketts’ son, the late Ed Jr., had vivid memories of Steinbeck coming over to their house at the Pacific Biological Laboratories. He found Steinbeck a little intimidating, but he also remembered Steinbeck giving him his first trumpet and encouraging him to develop his talents for music and photography.

To say that the book captures Ricketts’s laboratory is putting it mildly. I know I’m not the only one to feel a mix of uneasiness and familiarity when on the street in front of 800 Cannery Row, as if I’ve walked into the novel or the novel has walked out at me.

Interior of Pacific Biological Laboratories as they look today. (Yelp)

Unlike most other Steinbeck novels, the movie rights of which were snatched up sooner rather than later, it took decades for the Cannery Row stories to become a film. They tried, though, in 1947. Burgess Meredith wanted to play Doc. Due to strikes and shortages brought on by World War Two, it didn’t pan out.

Instead of a film, Steinbeck decided to make Cannery Row into a libretto starring Henry Fonda. It would be set after the war, and Doc was to have a romance. He tried bringing on Rodgers and Hammerstein to write the music, but nothing gelled because no one was being themselves–Cannery Row with its whorehouses and derelicts didn’t fit Rodgers and Hammerstein’s family-friendly bent, even if they were lovable characters.

The site of Ed Ricketts’ accident. His memorial bust faces the exact spot where his car stalled in 1948. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the end, Steinbeck turned his ideas into 1954’s Sweet Thursday, Rogers and Hammerstein turned the Cannery Row music into Pipe Dream, and Henry Fonda breathed a sigh of relief because he wouldn’t have to star in a musical.

Steinbeck may have undertaken his libretto out of mourning. Things had changed in Cannery Row since the war; the canning business had gone away, with many of the old crowd moving on in various ways. Ed Ricketts died in 1948 when his car was hit by a train. After the failure of the libretto, Steinbeck himself ended up living in New York’s Sag Harbor for the rest of his life. Sweet Thursday was a coda on a long chapter he probably always looked back on with wistful fondness.

The Movie Database

It wasn’t until 1982 that Cannery Row finally hit the big screen, starring Nick Nolte as Doc and Debra Winger as his love interest, Suzy. It’s a mashup of Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, and…they didn’t do it right. Anyone who’s read the books is unlikely to be impressed.

I tried watching the film, but it didn’t grab me. It’s OK and that’s all. The first five minutes are devoted to Doc putting an octopus he’s caught into a big tank and talking to Mack about how he thinks his life is going nowhere, and it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the film when the octopus gets more screen time than the actors.


The movie’s sense of history and place are very murky, too. While bits of the film were shot in Monterey, the bulk of the Cannery Row scenes were filmed in Culver City and it shows. The Northern Coast, Central Coast, and Southern Coast beaches all have very different looks, and the fishing industries, or what’s left of them, are deeply connected to their various locales, so they’re pretty easy to tell apart. It doesn’t matter if it’s Monterey, Fort Bragg, or San Diego.


Not only that, but the first book takes place before World War Two and the second after it, and the film is just kinda generic. It’s sometime in the 1940s, which was a pretty dumb move on the filmmakers’ part, because so much of the characters’ attitudes and responses to life were affected by the war and the changes in the fishing industry during that time.

Plus Nolte is very miscast as Doc, not that he’s a bad actor, but he’s a little scary-looking, like he’s going to hurt someone. Ed Ricketts was well-loved around town, whereas Nolte was constantly getting cast as action heroes and baddies during his heyday. It doesn’t work. I honestly don’t know who from that time period would have made an effective Doc. Possibly Sam Waterston.


Maybe Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday were never meant to come to the big screen. Maybe they only live properly where they always were…in Monterey and Steinbeck’s pages.

As the man himself wrote in the first paragraph of Cannery Row:

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.”


Another review is coming up on Friday. Thanks for reading, all, as always, and hope to see you in a couple of days…

Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday are available from Amazon. The film, Cannery Row, is available to rent on Prime or to own on DVD and Blu-ray, also from Amazon.

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Shillinglaw, Susan. A Journey Into Steinbeck’s California. Berkeley: Roaring Forties Press, 2006.

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