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 (1960) 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 SUBTERRANEANSwas 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.
by Kimberly Lindbergs
Note: Originally published in 2010 on The Movie Morlocks, the official blog of Turner Classic Movies.