Sure, you could experience the Beat sensibility on film by watching The Beat Generation. But why settle for that high-gloss Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer feature treatment when you can get an unadulterated half-hour chunk of the real thing above, in Pull My Daisy? Both films came out in 1959, but only the latter comes from the lens of photographer Robert Frank, he of the famous photobook The Americans. And only the latter features the unconventional performing talents of Allen Ginsberg, David Amram,Delphine Seyrig, and Jack Kerouac.
That Kerouac himself provides all the narration assures us we’re watching a movie fully committed to the Beat mindset. “Early morning in the universe,” he says to set the opening scene. “The wife is gettin’ up, openin’ up the windows, in this loft that’s in the Bowery of the Lower East Side of New York. She’s a painter, and her husband’s a railroad brakeman, and he’s comin’ home in a couple hours, about five hours, from the local.”
Kerouac’s ambling words seem at first like one improvisational element of many. In fact, they provided the production’s only element of improvisation: Frank and company took pains to light, shoot, script, and rehearse with great deliberateness, albeit the kind of deliberateness meant to create the impression of thrown-together, ramshackle spontaneity. But if the kind of careful craft that made Pull My Daisy seems not to fit within the anarchic subcultural collective persona of the Beats, surely the premises of its story and the consequences thereof do. The aforementioned brakeman brings a bishop home for dinner, but his exuberantly low-living buddies decide they want in on the fun. Or if there’s no fun to be had, then, in keeping with what we might identify as Beat principles, they’ll create some of their own. Or at least they’ll create a disturbance, and where could a Beat possibly draw the line between disturbance and fun?
Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in three very short weeks in 1951. But then it took six years for the book, famously written on a long scroll, to reach the reading public in 1957. Shortly after its publication, critics were at least quick to recognize what the book meant. One New York Times reviewer called it “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago asbeat.” Another saw in the novel “a descriptive excitement unmatched since the days of Thomas Wolfe.” 54 years later, those early reviews have withstood the proverbial test of time. These days, Modern Library andTIME place the novel on their lists of the 100 greatest novels.