Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on March 11, 2010
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.
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.
MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more: facebook.com/tcmtv
See more: twitter.com/tcm
3-D Academy Awards Action Films Actors Actors' Endorsements Actresses animal stars Animation Anime Anthology Films Art Direction Art in Movies Asians in Hollywood Australian CInema Autobiography Avant-Garde Aviation Awards B-movies Beer in Film Behind the Scenes Best of the Year lists Biography Biopics Black Film Blu-Ray Books on Film Boxing films British Cinema Canadian Cinema Character Actors Chicago Film History Cinematography Classic Films College Life on Film Comedy Comic Book Movies Crime Czech Film Dance on Film Digital Cinema Directors Disaster Films Documentary Drama DVD Early Talkies Editing Educational Films European Influence on American Cinema Experimental Exploitation Fairy Tales on Film Faith or Christian-based Films Family Films Film Composers Film Criticism Film Festival 2015 film festivals Film History in Florida Film Noir Film Scholars Film titles Filmmaking Techniques Films About Gambling Films of the 1960s Films of the 1970s Films of the 1980s Food in Film Foreign Film French Film Gangster films Genre Genre spoofs HD & Blu-Ray Holiday Movies Hollywood history Hollywood lifestyles Horror Horror Movies Icons independent film Italian Film Japanese Film Korean Film Literary Adaptations Martial Arts Melodramas Memorabilia Method Acting Mexican Cinema Moguls Monster Movies Movie Books Movie Costumes movie flops Movie locations Movie lovers Movie Reviewers Movie settings Movie Stars Movie titles Movies about movies Music in Film Musicals New Releases Outdoor Cinema Paranoid Thrillers Parenting on film Pirate movies Polish film industry political thrillers Politics in Film Pornography Pre-Code Producers Race in American Film Remakes Revenge Road Movies Romance Romantic Comedies Satire Scandals Science Fiction Screenwriters Semi-documentaries Serials Set design/production design Short Films Silent Film silent films Social Problem Film Sports Sports on Film Stereotypes Straight-to-DVD Studio Politics Stunts and stuntmen Suspense thriller Swashbucklers TCM Classic Film Festival TCM Underground Television The British in Hollywood The Germans in Hollywood The Hungarians in Hollywood The Irish in Hollywood Theaters Thriller Trains in movies U.S.S. Indianapolis Underground Cinema VOD War film Westerns Women in the Film Industry Women's Weepies