Tag Archives: Salinas

A fallen human world amidst natural beauty

John Steinbeck (1902-68) was a major American writer back in the days when writers mattered in America. His writings, especially The Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle and Of Mice and Men, are still being censored and are anathema to California agribusiness. Although he grew up in a small city, he revered family farms and wrote compellingly about some ambitious California farmers, especially in his ambitious late novel East of Eden and in the interconnected stories of The Pastures of Heaven.

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First published in 1932, The Pastures of Heaven is the work in which Steinbeck found his voice — or, more correctly, voices, since there was the wry, mock-heroic Mark Twain-like Steinbeck as well as the naturalistic chronicler of doom and degradation in the Zola tradition. Doomed semi-retarded characters pop up very often. The most famous is Lenny in Of Mice and Men, but in The Pastures of Heaven there is the artistic (idiot savant) Tularecito, Hilda Van Deventer, Alice Wicks, and Manfred Munroe, plus an epileptic, and many delusional characters, although the line between ill-founded dreams and psychopathological belief is fuzzy in Steinbeck’s stories (and in real life, I think). Pat Humbert is animated into redecorating the house he has inherited by a plan to propose marriage once he has the house perfected. The possibility may have been remote and any opportunity was lost by the delay of his project, but I’d classify this as illusion rather than delusion.

The Whiteside desire to establish a dynasty based on a dynastic castle of a house is not insane, but strains against the low fertility of an exhausted bloodline (degeneracy is the prime naturalist trope) and the more than remote possibility that the next generation will have different dreams. Molly sacrifices the life and happiness she has been building up for a fear that is not paranoid, but still seems exaggerated. I guess that the Lopez sisters are delusional in not seeing what they do as prostitution, but the ignorance of what other people (local polite society) thinks is a boon to Juntius and Robbie Maltby — as long as they are able to maintain their self-image as philosophers living happily off the land. The imaginary world (and riches) of “Shark” Wicks blocks doing what he would have needed to do to attain the image of himself he entertained and promulgated to the neighbors.

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Although most of those living in the pastures of heaven are (circa the early 20th century) only second-generation residents, and more than a few move away over the course of the book, it is a new family, the Munroes, who settle in what is believed to be a haunted house and cursed farm in the center of the valley, who — mostly inadvertently — disturb the tenuous psychological balance of other characters. These outsiders are catalysts (another good naturalist notion) for other residents to attain their disasters and to recognize the unreality or failure of their dreams. Friendly, eager to help, and totally conventional, the Munroes set off disillusionment and tragedy (Tularecito being locked up in an asylum, Hilda Van Deventer’s death, the burning of the Whiteside home that was built to stand 500 years, the Maltbys leaving their pastoral idyll to make money in San Francisco, John Whiteside to go into business in Monterey, etc.)

Steinbeck (especially in Tortilla Flat and Sweet Thursday) sometimes seems to me to have condescended to his “simple people” characters. His bemused tale of the Lopez sisters comes close to this, but is not discernible in the story of Tularecito and the gnomes. There is also often a misogynist panic in Steinbeck (especially in the stories in The Long Valley) when writing about women as anything other than madonnas or prostitutes. This makes the story of the teacher Molly Morgan exceptional in the Steinbeck oeuvre: a sympathetic, rounded female character who is neither a mother nor a prostitute. It is also the most technically complex of the stories in The Pastures of Heaven.

Other than the faux-jaunty prologue about a Spanish corporal discovering the valley chasing escaped Indians from the concentration camp that was the Carmel Mission, there are no weak stories in this collection.

 

The second half ot the introduction to the Penguin addition by James Nagel (who also supplied notes I consider superfluous) should have been an afterword, but I think that he is right that in this story cycle, inspired in part by Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and by Stephen Crane’s Whilomville Stories, Steinbeck “discovered the central subject of his greatest work, the simple people of the Salinas Valley, struggling against the odds, against economic deprivation and the legacy of a past that threatens to overwhelm them [as in Faulkner’s fiction]…. Many of the themes of Pastures—the destructive potential of conformity, the dangers of self-delusion and false social values—he continued to explore throughout his career.” Steinbeck’s style, subject, and fundamental themes first became visible in The Pastures of Heaven.

Although his books were once burned in Salinas, and the self-annointed newspaper of record in America published in what was then his home chose to publish a dismissal of his work on the day he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, Steinbeck’s work has endured with little encouragement from academia. All of his books of fiction are in print and his sometimes sentimental, sometimes brutal lyricism continues to draw “voluntary readers” (that is, those not assigned to read “classics” for courses). For anyone unfamiliar with Steinbeck’s themes and style, or anyone who finds his big books (The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden) strained, The Pastures of Heaven is an excellent point of entry, better even than the short stories collected in The Long Valley (though the latter volume contains my favorite, “Leader of the People”).

This was part of an epinions writeoff for the Steinbeck centenary.

©2002, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

John Steinbeck’s East of Eden on big and little screens

Both the 1955 feature film and the 1981 miniseries based on John Steinbeck’s 1952 blockbuster best-selling novel East of Eden have females top-billed: Julie Harris and Jane Seymour, respectively. They did not play the same role (Abra and Cathy/Kate, respectively). Moreover the actresses playing Cathy/Kate won awards: Jo Van Fleet the best supporting actress Oscar and Jane Seymour a Golden Globe. They played a meaty role, though the character verges on being a demon onf Steinbeck’s misogynist imaginings.

The novel is “about” two generations of Cain and Abel antagonists (Trask brothers), though Steinbeck seems to have wanted there to be an offsetting focus on the Hamilton clan, the patriarch of which was to some degree based on the author’s mother’s father. And in the third part (the part on which the movie was based) Kate’s orneriness is balanced by the very sympathetic Abra (Harris).

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In that the 1955 movie directed by Elia Kazan is a masterpiece, the primary interest of the miniseries is in the first two parts that provide the East Coast backstory of Adam (and his disfavored, brutal bully of a brother, Charles). Their father Cyrus (Warren Oates) is a rascal bilking the Civil War veterans (GAR), who forces Adam (Timothy Bottoms) into the army and Indian wars (and away from Charles, who nearly slew Adam after the initial version of the welcome and unwelcome gifts from the boys).

Adam returns home to find Cyrus dead and learns he is a beneficiary of a $100K inheritance (in addition to his half-interest in the Connecticut farm). For a while the brothers work the farm. Adam knows their father swindled the money but assures Charles that he must have come by it honestly (if insider trading is “honest”).

The miniseries also follows the life of destruction and false innocence of Kate, whose most recent patron (Howard Duff) beat her to a pulp. She crawls up the Trasks brothers’ steps. Charles recognizes her innocence as fraudulent, but Adam dotes on her and marries her. She knocks him out (laudanum in his tea) on the wedding night and seduces Charles. Then Adam and Kate go west.

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Adam wants to irrigate in California’s Central Valley (somewhere between King City and Salinas), buys a ranch, and hires Will Hamilton (Lloyd Bridges) and his sons to drill wells.

Kate attempts to induce a miscarriage, but carries a pair of non-identical twins to term. After which she leaves Adam and the farm, shooting him in the shoulder when he attempts to stop her. The boys, the goody-goody Aron and the bad boy Cal are raised by a wily Chinese servant, Lee (Soon-tek Oh) and believe their mother is dead and buried in the East. Lee’s character was dropped form the movie.

Cal learns otherwise. Cathy, now known as Kate, was doted upon by the madame of a bordello, Faye (Anne Bancroft), whom she kills pretty much immediately upon seeing a will that leaves everything to her. Kate’s is the plushest bordello on “whorehouse way” in Monterey (19 miles across a mountain range from Salinas, where the male Trasks reside).

Adam’s scheme to ship lettuce to the East with icebox boxcars fails. Cal wants to make money to restore Adam’s wealth and hooks up with the savviest of the Hamiltons to buy bean futures in anticipation of a price rise when the US goes to war (which Woodrow Wilson has just been re-elected promising to keep out of).

Cal cannot borrow money from Lee, who is not a character in the movie, and convinces Kate to lend him the money. In both versions the scheme succeeds and Cal presents an envelope with fifteen grand to his father (for Thanksgiving in the miniseries for his birthday in the movie, also celebrated with a turkey dinner). Adam is on (miniseries) or heads (movie) the draft board and rejects the profiteering loot. In the movie Aron very deliberately upstages Cal’s gift by reporting that he and Abra have gotten engaged, which comes as a surprise to her, and a surprise she does not at all welcome, having tried to help Cal squeeze some love from his father. In the miniseries, Aron only lets his father assume what he wants (that Aron will return to Stanford).

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(James Dean, Burl Ives, and Richard Davlos sending off train with lettuce)

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(Sam Bottoms and Hart Bochner, looking less twin-like!)

Heartbroken that Aron again has received all the paternal approbation, Cal takes Aron to Monterey to meet his(/their) mother. That he is the sone of a whore shakes Aron (planning to be an Episcopalian priest in the miniseries and even more moralistic than his father) who gets drunk and enlists in the army, going off to be killed. Cain de facto kills Abel in the guise of Cal and Aron (though the movie’s Aron exceeds Cal in sibling rivalry in the movie version, and is rather Cain-like, even if his offerings are pleasing to the family god, Adam).

In both versions, Abra had become increasingly dissatisfied with Aron and eager to repair Cal even before the re-enactment of the pleasing and the rejected filial gifts.

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(Dean and Harris)

Though Aron’s visit is unwelcome to Kate in the movie, on rewatching it I did not find any hint that it drives her to suicide or to leaving her wealth to Aron with whom she has no affinity (she has some with Cal for rejecting Adam’s self-righteousness).

In the movie, Adam has a stroke after his favorite son flees. In the miniseries Adam has a stroke upon receiving news that his favorite son has been killed in action. Both versions end with Adam being convinced (by Lee in the miniseries, by Abra in the movie) to bless Cal and help him become whole.

The movie is electrified by the yearning and hopelessness of James Dean (who had similar problems trying to please his father). In his first movie role, and the only one that he lived long enough to see the finished version, Dean was nominated for an Oscar. Sam Bottoms could not compete with (the memory of) Dean for anguish and comes across as much less neurotic, more resigned to always being judged inferior to Aron. Richard Davlos’s Aron in the movie is less puritanical, but more jealous and competitive to his brother than Hart Bochner in the miniseries.

Given the much longer time span of the miniseries, Jane Seymour was more demonic than Jo Van Fleet. The latter’s Kate was bitter, but more sympathetic to Cal (having to lend him his start-up capital with Lee excised).

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(Jo Van Fleet)

The miniseries has an earlier-generation Cain, Charles, played by Bruce Bochner, Oh’s wise Chinese male mother, Anne Baxter’s naïve lesbian madame, Howard Duff’s whoremaster betrayed by Kate, and a flamboyant turn by Lloyd Bridges as the other one who dares to speak truth to Adam. Both have sheriffs maintaining order through personal authority (Burl Ives and M. Emmet Walsh).

Though Sam Bottoms was criticized for not being James Dean or a reincarnation of him, my casting problem is with Timothy Bottoms as his father (Adam). There is a family resemblance, but Timothy was only four years older than Sam. And for me, Timothy Bottoms was not convincing as a patriarch. Raymond Massey (in the movie) was, though showing an occasional sense of humor (especially when getting driving instructions). Kazan conspired with Dean to get Massey riled, and Massey has a fury I can’t imagine Timothy Bottoms coming close to conveying.

Julie Harris’s Abra was a bigger part than Karen Allen’s. Jack Warner opposed casting her, thinking her too old, but Harris had continued playing Frankie in “A Member of the Wedding” into her mid-20s. She does not look or seem her age (30) in “East of Eden.” Dean was six years younger, but could not pass for 17 (IMHO). Nor could Davalos, who was 25. (Sam Bottoms was 26, Hart Bochner 25 when the miniseries was made).

I think Frank Stanley’s cinematography for the miniseries (it was Emmy-nominated), but the look, not just the sweeping exteriors, but the closeups Ted McCord (Treasure of the Sierra Made, The Sound of Music) shot, stretching the then newish CinemaScope color-film technology of the day, was superlative. It included some unconventional (outside the noir universe) angles. (I can’t say that I agree with Kazan’s decision to shoot Cal and Abra blocked by a willow tree for most of their post-dinner-blowout scene.

I also don’t understand the need for a movie running less than two hours to have an overture with a shot of waves breaking on Portuguese Beach with a view of Mendocino (standing in for 1917 Monterey). I’m less than enthused but not annoyed by the music in both versions: Leonard Rosenman’s for the movie, Lee Holdridge’s for the miniseries. The musical themes sound similar and for my taste are repeated too often in both.

I am glad to have the miniseries that has much more of the book (it had better, being more than three times as long!) as well as the Kazan/Dean classic. The current 2-disc video release of the movie has lots of interesting bonus features, the (belated, only appearing in 2009) version of the miniseries has a very entertaining interview of Jane Seymour and a reasonable text-based biography of Steinbeck.

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

On the corpus of screen adaptations of Steinbeck fiction see here.

 

National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California

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The National Steinbeck Center has some John Steinbeck memorabilia and multi-media somewhat-interactive displays. The number of different videos and audiotape goins simultaneously make for overlapping sound. To listen to Steinbeck’s resonant Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the perfectiability of man, I sat down on the floor practically behind a wall (of the gazebo in Sag Harbor in which he found all inspiration to write gone).

The exhibits begin with East of Eden and end with Travels with Charly, though earlier work is featured in between. I thought that I had read most of what Steinbeck wrote before I was born, but I didn’t even know there was a book of WWII reportage, Once There Was a War, that includes the landing at Salerno.

I can say that I turned the crank of a model-T. Not that it started the engine, or that I understood why it was in the East of Eden room, but, hey! I turned it.

It seems Steinbeck wrote in pencil (legibly) on yellow legal-size pads. There is a book titled Steinbeck’s Typewriter that has a picture of a typewriter that is at San José State, but if he typed, it was to copy pencil drafts. Or to answer correspondence?

I wonder how much The Moon Is Down influenced the Nobel judges. If the award had come during the 40s, it probably would have been met with less contempt than it was in the early 60s. It might have dried him more completely sooner.

Anthony Burgess wrote that Steinbeck was a worthy but not an important writer. Steinbeck was an important writer in the New Deal era, though Burgess means important as a writer to the arts of writing. The chords Steinbeck struck must continue, since all his books of fiction seem to be in print.

Steinbeck wrote speeches for Adlai Stevenson and was an appreciated supporter of LBJ’s war (in which both of his sons fought). A liberal humanist (I saw part of “The Forgotten Village”), I won’t hold him responsible for Spencer Tracy’s hammy trickster-drunk in Tortilla Flat” (also on display with the less condescebding performance of John Garfield).

The Nobel speech connects to Faulkner, someone less likely to be compared to Steinbeck than Hemingway. (Steinbeck scoffed at the dialogue of The Sun Also Rises, but realized Hemingway’s prose mattered in ways his writing didn’t.)

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We had lunch  at the large Victorian house a few blocks away (at 124 Central Avenue) in which Steinbeck  was born in 1902 and in which he  lived in until he left to start Stanford in 1917. It is now a restaurant maintained by a local nonprofit guild, with  some memorabilia on display with photos, and a gift shop called Best Cellar on the side at ground level.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

The Steinbeck Festival in Salinas is this week, and for my blog it’s now back to Kobayashi films. I’ve posted on the best movies based on Steinbeck fiction and two of his best known and most California Central Valley fictions, The Red Pony (within The Long Valley) and Of Mice and Men. I think the best introduction to his work is The Portable Steinbeck.

 

 

Films of John Steinbeck work

(the house at 124 Central Avenue, Salinas, CA where John Steinbeck was born 27 Feb. 1902)

Like Sinclair Lewis, another very popular writer whose award of a Nobel Prize for literature drove many literary critics to paroxysms of scorn, John Steinbeck’s novels have been better served on screen than those of the Holy Trinity of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, or (with the exception of two screen adaptations of To Have and to Have Not) Hemingway. Moreover, it is the major books — The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men — that were the bases for the most memorable movies (unlike the good movies based on work by Faulkner and Hemingway; as far as I know there are no good movies based on work by Fitzgerald).

The four films with screenplays by Steinbeck all have striking visuals. I have only seen parts of “The Forgotten Village”(directed by Herbert Kline 1941, narrated by Burgess Meredith), a documentary about progress (modern medicine and boiling drinking water). The parable of greed and despair, “The Pearl” (directed by Emilio Fernández with Pedro Armendáriz and María Elena Marqués, 1946), looks great with even more stunning chiaroscuro cinematography (by Gabriel Figueroa). Surely influenced by Eisenstein’s “Que Viva México,” there are also strong visual compositions (Joe McDonald’s) in “Viva Zapata!” directed by Elia Kazan in 1952 with standout performances by Marlon Brando, Anthony Quinn (the latter winning his first Academy Award in it), and by Zapata’s white horse

“The Red Pony” (directed by Lewis Milestone, 1949) is not a great film (as “The Grapes of Wrath” is). It does have a great musical score, Aaron Copland’s best. It also has the great Myrna Loy. Although down on the farm is not where she belonged, it is a pleasure to see Ms. Loy anywhere. It has Margaret Hamilton, also not where she belonged: as a teacher. It has Robert Mitchum while he was still smoldering and wasn’t phoning in his performances. What is unforgettable about the film is the death scene (to avoid spoiling the impact for anyone unfamiliar with it, I will not specify whose).

Steinbeck disavowed Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 film “Lifeboat” in anger at the stereotypes to which Canada Lee’s character was reduced, some anti-labor union rhetoric that I don’t remember, and an implicit message that to defeat the Nazis required being more like them in organization and single-mindedness that I do remember. What most people remember from “Lifeboat” is Tallulah Bankhead’s sangre-froide. If the story was truly Steinbeck’s, her presence would be the source of trouble, but instead it is basically her boat and she consents to take in others, even as she is gradually stripped of her comforts and possessions (perhaps the sadistic jettisoning of the tools of her trade — camera and typewriter — are remnants of Steinbeck’s story). John Hodiak manfully resists Bankhead’s ardent advances and William Bendix hallucinates.

I hadn’t heard of “A Medal for Benny” (directed by Irving Pichel 1945) until I saw a production still from it at the Steinbeck Library. I’m sure it’s heartwarming, possibly in a curdling way. J. Carroll Naish received an Oscar nomination, and Dorothy Lamour played the girl Benny left behind who finds ways to occupy herself in his absence.

Steinbeck Novels Adapted by Others (from best to worst)

The indisputable great film of Steinbeck’s writing is derived from his most famous and Pulitzer Prize-wining novel, The Grapes of Wrath. The film, directed in 1940 by John Ford, provided a defining role for Henry Fonda as Tom Joad and very memorable ones for Jane Darwell (in her Oscar-winning portrayal of Ma Joad) and John Carradine as the Rev. Jim Casey. The photography by the great Gregg Toland is very striking, both the daytime vistas and the firelit night-time people. Most of the political bite was defanged before being put on screen and a more upbeat Hollywood ending was added.
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In that James Dean died after making only three films, I can’t say that “East of Eden” defined him, though I think it was made before “Rebel Without a Cause.” I will say that “East of Eden” (directed by Elia Kazan, released in 1955) is the best film starring James Dean. Adam is the most memorable performance by Raymond Massey after being the young Abraham Lincoln, and there is a moving performance by a non-fluttering Julie Harris. Plus as Eve — renamed Kate — Jo Van Fleet chews up the scenery playing the mother who fled the Trask household to become the bordello keeper of Salinas. (She was Oscared for her snarling performance.) The primary problem with the film (other than lacking the background to what is shown; the film is taken from the last quarter of Steinbeck’s long novel) is Richard Davalos as Aaron Trask. (1) He can’t hold the screen with Dean or Massey, (2) he is turned way too goody-goody, and (3) he is still alive at the end of the movie —I’d guess in order to spare the blood being on James Dean’s hands. For a version of the Cain and Abel, this will not do! (I thought that Hart Bochner, who was more priggish but less jealous in the 1981 miniseries made more sense; the miniseries also covered the whole novel.)
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The other really memorable film based on a Steinbeck novel is “Of Mice and Men” (directed by Lewis Milestone in 1939). Burgess Meredith appeared in many films (Winterset, Rocky, Grumpy Old Men, etc), but other than being the Penguin on the tv “Batman,” his memorable screen work was as George. Rereading the book, I could hear his voice. I can see Lon Chaney, Jr. in my mind as Lenny, but the cadences of his speech are not lodged there as Meredith’s are. Charles Bickford played the variant of Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts (Slim) here, one of a long line of wise, tough foremen (etc.) in his career. Betty Field played the Eve (or Pandora) figure. “She was made for love and tragedy”? Not much of a tragic figure and more made for flirting than for love, I think. There’s splendid cinematography (Norbert Brodine) and a good musical score by Aaron Copland (though not nearly as good as that he would do for “The Red Pony”). There have been two later versions: A 1981 with Robert Blake as George and Randy Quaid as Lenny, and a 1992 version in living color directed by Gary Sinise, who also played George, with John Malkovich playing Lenny, from a screenplay by Horton Foote. The latter one is quite good and in color.

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The Red Pony” was well transferred to film in 1949by Lewis Milestone with the unlikely pair of wise parents played by Robert Mitchum and Myrna Loy with Peter Miles as their son, owner of the pony, and Beau Bridges as another boy named Beau.

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James Franco’s best movie (as a director) to date is the 2017 adaptation of Steinbeck’s 1936 fruitpicker strike movie In Dubious Battle. It is quite faithful to the original book for three-quarters of its length, and retains the dubiousness of either success or a new system without new oppressors (the iron law of oligarchy).

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Irving Pichel directed the wartime propaganda film of “The Moon Is Down” (1943) with Cedric Hardwicke as the Nazi commandant confronted by Norwegian mayor Henry Travers and sabotage by townspeople. I think that I saw it on tv once upon a time, but I don’t remember anything about it, and it may be equally long ago reading of the novel (possession of which was a capital crime in the Third Reich) that makes it seem familiar.

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I have not seen the film of “The Wayward Bus” (Victor Vicas, 1957). The novel is deservedly forgotten, but a film starring Joan Collins and Jayne Mansfield in a tropical storm must have some camp cachet.

Both the novel The Pearl and its 1947 Mexican screen adaptation (directed in English  by Emiio Fernandez, starring Pedro Armendariz)  are simplistic, but the black-and-white cinematography by Gabriel Figuero (who would shoot “The Fugitive” for John Ford and “Night of the Iguana” for John Huston) is outstanding and won a Golden Globe.

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I enjoy Spencer Tracy’s sly Pilon in “Tortilla Flat” (directed by Victor Fleming, 1942) about as much as hearing fingernails scraping on chalkboards. I think that, in general, Tracy is a very overrated actor, but his patronizing turns as “men of the people” (Hemingway’s “Old Man in the Sea” is another instance, and his Oscar-winning sailor in “Captains Courageous” another) make me want to puke — or at least fast-forward. Hedy Lamarr slums in the picture (the ultra-glamorous star of “Algiers”, not to mention of “Ecstasy,” as “Sweets”!). The main reason to put up with Spencer Tracy and the romanticization of poverty in this is to enjoy John Garfield as the sweet, relatively simple-minded Danny. Frank Morgan was nominated for an Oscar for his wide-eyed Pirate who has visions of St. Francis, has a canine pack, and a bag of quarters to buy a gold thousand-day candlestick for St. Francis’s statue in the local church. I find his performance nearly as noxiously hammy as Tracy’s.

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Cannery Row” (directed by David Ward, 1982) is a complete disaster despite Nick Nolte and Debra Winger being cast in roles that seem plausible for them — until one sees the result. John Huston’s narration is over-the-top parody of the Steinbeck faux heartiness. It combines material from Sweet Thursday with material from Cannery Row though the only part that works at all is the frog hunt.

I don’t remember much about the 1983 tv movie of “The Winter of Our Discontent” starring Donald Sutherland, Terri Garr, and Tuesday Weld, or various remakes of “Of Mice and Men,” The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Pearl”, and “The Red Pony.” I’d really like to see the 1959 tv version of “Burning Bright,” because it starred Colleen Dewhurst. And I’d like to see the tv adaptation of Travels with Charley, narrated by Henry Fonda (I heard some of it at the Steinbeck Museum while I was looking at Rocinante, the camper Steinbeck drove around America.)

Listed as being in post-production is a film version of Steinbeck’s story “Flight.” And another version of East of Eden is rumored, too.

©2001, 2016, Stephen O. Murray