Love Among the New Bohemians

If literary legend Jack Kerouac were still alive he would be celebrating his 88th birthday tomorrow. Unfortunately Kerouac left us much too early at age 47 but his work lives on. Often called the father of the Beat movement, Jack Kerouac’s jazz-fueled spontaneous writing style doesn’t easily lend itself to film adaptations. The most grievous example of this is the 1960 film adaptation of Kerouac’s short novel THE SUBTERRANEANS directed by Ranald MacDougall and produced by Arthur Freed for MGM. THE SUBTERRANEANS was the first full-length film adaptation of a Jack Kerouac novel and it’s not an easy movie to recommend. The film is badly cast and plays like a poorly misconstrued parody of the Beat Generation. It also takes extreme liberties with Kerouac’s original story. So why am writing about it? As a novice jazz enthusiast the movie appeals to the music lover in me and as someone who was born in the Bay Area, I find the San Francisco setting extremely enchanting.

THE SUBTERRANEANS
was originally a semi-autobiographical story written by Kerouac in just three days and published by Grove Press in 1958. It details the brief interracial romance between Leo Percepied (filling-in for Jack Kerouac) and a young African American woman named Mardou Fox. Some of the highlights of the book include Kerouac’s description of the clubs that he was frequenting at the time and an encounter with jazz legend Charlie Parker.

Unfortunately Ranald MacDougall’s film adaptation lacks the raw energy of Kerouac’s original novel. It also makes a mockery of Kerouac’s writing style and original ideas. Interracial marriage was still illegal in many parts of America in 1960 and Hollywood wasn’t prepared to feature an interracial relationship in THE SUBTERRANEANS. When it was adapted for the screen MGM decided to turn Mardou Fox into a French woman. Naturally this stripped Kerouac’s story of its original power as well as its social relevance. The movie became a typical Hollywood romance that was obviously trying to cash-in on the Beats’ influence on popular culture at the time.

The film adaptation stars George Peppard trying to do his best Jack Kerouac impersonation as Leo Percepied and Leslie Caron as his love interest. It’s hard to think of two actors who were more ill-prepared to play beatniks in 1960 but the script doesn’t do them any favors. Roddy McDowall, Jim Hutton and Janice Rule also appear in the film in thankless roles along with Arte Johnson who tries to lighten up the dreary affair with a few jokes. But the real saving grace of THE SUBTERRANEANS is its lovely setting and a great score by composer Andre Previn.

Andre Previn was a more conservative musician than many of the groundbreaking artists who are often associated with Jack Kerouac such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, but he was a talented jazz pianist in his own right. Today Andre Previn is often remembered for composing the award-winning soundtracks to popular films such as BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955), GIGI (1958) and ELMER GANTRY (1960) as well as for his marriage to actress Mia Farrow. At the time that THE SUBTERRANEANS was made, Previn was touring as a jazz musician while recording albums with Dinah Shore and Doris Day. Previn’s appearance in THE SUBTERRANEANS is one of the movie’s musical highlights. The film also features a performance by the amazing vocal artist Carmen McRae and brief appearances from many other jazz luminaries including Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, Shelly Manne, Art Farmer, Buddy Clark, Red Mitchell and Russ Freeman. If you’re a Jazz enthusiast the film might be worth a look just to catch a glimpse of many of these talented musicians.

Although THE SUBTERRANEANS is a poor representation of Jack Kerouac’s novel of the same name it does feature some memorable exterior shots of the City by the Bay. San Francisco wasn’t a common location for Hollywood films in 1960, but director Ranald MacDougall along with cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg, made great use of the city. They shot the film on San Francisco’s winding streets using beautiful views of the bay as the backdrop for the blossoming romance between George Peppard and Leslie Caron. Both actors look terrific in the film and make for an interesting couple. They’re able to maintain some chemistry even when the script is failing them. And it fails them often.

Many people, including Jack Kerouac himself, would probably like to see THE SUBTERRANEANS forgotten forever and I really can’t blame them. The film’s flaws far outweigh any of its redeeming qualities. If you want to enjoy THE SUBTERRANEANS you’ll have to forget about the movie’s literary roots and forgive the film’s bad beatnik impersonations. The movie is best appreciated as a cultural artifact or a conventional Hollywood love story that takes place in one of the most romantic cities in the world.

32 Responses Love Among the New Bohemians
Posted By morlockjeff : March 11, 2010 4:48 pm

The score of the film is great and I listened to it often before I ever saw the movie. I had conjured up an entirely different impression of the characters in my head based on the score…and boy, was the reality a huge let down. Like I was expecting Hollywood to make a good movie out of a Kerouac novel?

Posted By morlockjeff : March 11, 2010 4:48 pm

The score of the film is great and I listened to it often before I ever saw the movie. I had conjured up an entirely different impression of the characters in my head based on the score…and boy, was the reality a huge let down. Like I was expecting Hollywood to make a good movie out of a Kerouac novel?

Posted By Robert Ring : March 11, 2010 5:00 pm

Are you sure The Subterraneans was written in three days? On the Road was, I know.

Posted By Robert Ring : March 11, 2010 5:00 pm

Are you sure The Subterraneans was written in three days? On the Road was, I know.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 11, 2010 5:12 pm

The score is terrific and it’s a shame that the film doesn’t live up to its potential. Hopefully people will seek out the soundtrack if they’re not interested in the movie.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 11, 2010 5:12 pm

The score is terrific and it’s a shame that the film doesn’t live up to its potential. Hopefully people will seek out the soundtrack if they’re not interested in the movie.

Posted By mbm : March 11, 2010 6:48 pm

interesting fact I read in Donald Bogle’s bio on Dorothy Dandridge: they were very close to casting her in this film before they opted for Leslie Caron. would’ve been a much better film

Posted By mbm : March 11, 2010 6:48 pm

interesting fact I read in Donald Bogle’s bio on Dorothy Dandridge: they were very close to casting her in this film before they opted for Leslie Caron. would’ve been a much better film

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 11, 2010 7:05 pm

Thanks for sharing that fascinating bit of info about Dorthy Dandridge! I like Caron but Dandridge would have been much better for the role of Mardou Fox. It’s a shame that they didn’t cast her.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 11, 2010 7:05 pm

Thanks for sharing that fascinating bit of info about Dorthy Dandridge! I like Caron but Dandridge would have been much better for the role of Mardou Fox. It’s a shame that they didn’t cast her.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 11, 2010 8:08 pm

On my book cover of the THE SUBTERRANEANS is clearly states that it was “Written over the course of three days and three nights.” I have no reason to doubt Grove Press.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 11, 2010 8:08 pm

On my book cover of the THE SUBTERRANEANS is clearly states that it was “Written over the course of three days and three nights.” I have no reason to doubt Grove Press.

Posted By Robert Ring : March 11, 2010 8:40 pm

Crazy.

Posted By Robert Ring : March 11, 2010 8:40 pm

Crazy.

Posted By stacilaynewilson : March 12, 2010 1:09 pm

Great blog, Kimberly. I subscribed. I love the screencaps you chose. This is probably a movie I will not seek out, but you’ve definitely added to my knowledge – I hadn’t even heard of this one before. Thanks!

Staci
“I Think, Therefore I Blog”

Posted By stacilaynewilson : March 12, 2010 1:09 pm

Great blog, Kimberly. I subscribed. I love the screencaps you chose. This is probably a movie I will not seek out, but you’ve definitely added to my knowledge – I hadn’t even heard of this one before. Thanks!

Staci
“I Think, Therefore I Blog”

Posted By Dan Oliver : March 13, 2010 1:48 am

On The Road was emphatically not written in three days. Kerouac worked on different versions of it for the better part of a decade. The story of it being written quickly and without revisions is a myth.

Posted By Dan Oliver : March 13, 2010 1:48 am

On The Road was emphatically not written in three days. Kerouac worked on different versions of it for the better part of a decade. The story of it being written quickly and without revisions is a myth.

Posted By Robert Ring : March 13, 2010 1:51 am

Yeah, I know that. The story is that he worked on it for so long and then /supposedly/ wrote his final draft straight through in three days. Myth, as you say. What I was asking was whether Kimberley was sure that the same myth (or truth, here, perhaps?) applies to The Subterraneans.

Posted By Robert Ring : March 13, 2010 1:51 am

Yeah, I know that. The story is that he worked on it for so long and then /supposedly/ wrote his final draft straight through in three days. Myth, as you say. What I was asking was whether Kimberley was sure that the same myth (or truth, here, perhaps?) applies to The Subterraneans.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 13, 2010 10:53 am

Thanks a lot, Staci! I highly recommend the soundtrack even if you’re not interested ins seeing the movie.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 13, 2010 10:53 am

Thanks a lot, Staci! I highly recommend the soundtrack even if you’re not interested ins seeing the movie.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 13, 2010 10:58 am

As for On the Road, Kerouac himself said that he wrote the final draft of the book in three weeks. Not three days. I believe he said this to Steve Allen during a televised interview. I have no idea why both Dan and Robert seem to think that On the Road was written in three days.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 13, 2010 10:58 am

As for On the Road, Kerouac himself said that he wrote the final draft of the book in three weeks. Not three days. I believe he said this to Steve Allen during a televised interview. I have no idea why both Dan and Robert seem to think that On the Road was written in three days.

Posted By Robert Ring : March 13, 2010 1:20 pm

Apparently my wires got crossed with the three-week, three-day stuff. Although I sorta kinda remember a professor saying something a while back about OTR being written supposedly in three days. So, either he told me wrong, or I mixed things up myself.

Posted By Robert Ring : March 13, 2010 1:20 pm

Apparently my wires got crossed with the three-week, three-day stuff. Although I sorta kinda remember a professor saying something a while back about OTR being written supposedly in three days. So, either he told me wrong, or I mixed things up myself.

Posted By Bic : April 3, 2010 10:46 pm

I am an avid reader and lover of the work of Jack Kerouac, and I have been driving myself out of my mind attempting to find a copy of this film or a version I am able to download, if anyone nows where I can get it, please let me know. I’m on a very tight timeframe for it, as I am hoping to use it as a subject of a film paper for one of my classes, which is due the 16th. Thanks SO MUCh to anyone who can help me!

Posted By Bic : April 3, 2010 10:46 pm

I am an avid reader and lover of the work of Jack Kerouac, and I have been driving myself out of my mind attempting to find a copy of this film or a version I am able to download, if anyone nows where I can get it, please let me know. I’m on a very tight timeframe for it, as I am hoping to use it as a subject of a film paper for one of my classes, which is due the 16th. Thanks SO MUCh to anyone who can help me!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : April 5, 2010 4:58 pm

Bic – As far as I know the movie isn’t available on DVD or video. I saw it on TCM myself. Best of luck tracking down a copy.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : April 5, 2010 4:58 pm

Bic – As far as I know the movie isn’t available on DVD or video. I saw it on TCM myself. Best of luck tracking down a copy.

Posted By Bruce Armstrong : September 17, 2010 6:58 pm

Kimberly, I just came across your review while searching the internet to see if “The Subterraneans” was ever released on DVD–or VHS for that matter. No luck. Your review is 100% correct: The soundtrack is great and the movie is a joke. I saw it when I was in college a few years after it was made and could not believe how bad it was–almost a parody! Like an earlier reviewer I had owned the soundtrack LP for years, and to see the movie after years of listening to Previn’s great score was the “letdown of all letdowns!” I still wish I could get a copy of it though, just to see the jazz greats that are featured.

Posted By Bruce Armstrong : September 17, 2010 6:58 pm

Kimberly, I just came across your review while searching the internet to see if “The Subterraneans” was ever released on DVD–or VHS for that matter. No luck. Your review is 100% correct: The soundtrack is great and the movie is a joke. I saw it when I was in college a few years after it was made and could not believe how bad it was–almost a parody! Like an earlier reviewer I had owned the soundtrack LP for years, and to see the movie after years of listening to Previn’s great score was the “letdown of all letdowns!” I still wish I could get a copy of it though, just to see the jazz greats that are featured.

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