Set in Monterey, California's old "Cannery Row," the film tells the tale of marine biologist Doc, who sells sea life to the local colleges to earn a living. After a road trip south to La Jolla, near San Diego, he finds eight baby octopi and returns home to build an aquarium so he can watch them grown and make a scientific study. Suzy comes to town trying to find a job as a waitress but ends up becoming a prostitute when it's the only thing she can find. Doc is really Ed Daniels, a former professional baseball player with the Philadelphia Athletics, and when a romance grows between Suzy and Doc, she learns the real and tragic reason he left baseball.
This was not the first attempt to make an adaptation of the Steinbeck novel. In the late 1940s, Steinbeck had sold the film rights for $25,000 but the lack of color film due to World War II, as well as strikes and other problems delayed production and the film was not made. Steinbeck successfully sued for the return of his rights to the property in 1949. In the late 1970s, producer Michael Phillips had the idea of making a film that combined elements of Cannery Row with another Steinbeck work, the 1954 novel Sweet Thursday . It took Phillips nearly three years to secure the rights because Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II owned the stage and screen rights to Sweet Thursday . It didn't help that the Steinbeck agency "dragged their feet" (according to New West ) to make sure that Phillips was truly committed to the project and would treat the material respectfully.
Paul Newman was approached to play Doc and went through four drafts of the screenplay before turning the project down, and according to Rolling Stone , Jack Nicholson also said no to playing Doc. Phillips was having trouble getting any studio to commit to the film, with Variety claiming in a news story that they felt it was "too literary, didn't have enough youth appeal" and that the narration was too old-fashioned. They were also wary of working with first-time director David Ward. Mike Medavoy, then an executive at Orion Pictures, approached Nick Nolte about the project. At the same time, David Begelman had become president of MGM and both men liked the idea. Begelman arranged an $8 million budget for the film and principal photography was to begin on July 14, 1980. Nolte prepared for his role by studying with a marine biologist in Venice, California, and by attending the California Angels' spring training camp.
However, the producers still didn't have a leading lady. Although Debra Winger eventually played the part of Suzy, Jessica Lange was considered early on, and names as diverse as Dutch actress Monique Van de Ven, Bo Derek, Olivia Newton-John, Julie Christie, and Liza Minnelli were bandied about in the press before it was announced that Raquel Welch was cast. However, Welch was let go early in production, and later sued and won a reported $10.8 million dollars in 1988 after a lengthy court battle.
Locations were a problem as well, as the real Monterey had undergone significant construction since Steinbeck lived there during the Great Depression. According to Rolling Stone , MGM saved $2 million by opting to build the entire set indoors on the lot, rather than shoot everything on location. After what seemed like eternal delays, Cannery Row was shot between December 1, 1980 and March 20, 1981, with retakes shot in November 1981 at both the MGM studios and on location in Monterey. The final cost was estimated at $11.3 million, roughly $700,000 over budget.
In his January 1, 1982 review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote, "Old skid-row drunks are a lot of things. They are sick, they are lice-ridden, they are often prematurely senile, and sometimes they are so far gone they're not even tragic anymore, just wasted. Two things they are not is colorful and romantic, and when the Greek chorus of winos and bums marches onscreen in Cannery Row, we know the movie is in trouble. Dressed in colorful rags, each one an unforgettable character, they think they're Mr. Doolittle and his pals in My Fair Lady. [...] I mention the bums first, not because I think Cannery Row has any obligation to provide us with an accurate portrait of skid row, but because they are symptomatic of what is wrong with this movie." As Ebert saw it, none of it felt real, including the relationship of Nolte and Winger, which he thought "seemed scripted out of old country songs and lonely hearts columns." Audiences must have agreed with Ebert because the film only made $5.3 million at the US box office, or about half of its budget.
SOURCES: http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/DetailView.aspx?s=&Movie=56741 Ebert, Roger "Cannery Row" Chicago Sun-Times 1 Jan 82 The Internet Movie Database By Lorraine LoBianco