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The following written prologue appears in the onscreen credits: "This is the story of a new Bohemia . . .where the young gather to create and to destroy. In all times, in all cities for good and for evil, the young Bohemians have been the makers of the future. They are foolish and they have genius. You will find them on the Left Bank in Paris, in London's Soho, in Greenwich Village and here in San Francisco, in the area known as North Beach."
After being discharged from the Navy in WWII, novelist and poet Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), on whose book the film was based, roamed the United States taking odd jobs. He began writing in an unedited, spontaneous style which questioned the 1950s American ideals of family and industry. Kerouac coined the term "beat," an apolitical, anti-establishment literary movement based on self-discovery through experimentation with jazz, hallucinogenic drugs, sex and Zen Buddhism. In the original novel, Kerouac's protagonists are a French Canadian author and a black woman, instead of the American athlete and French woman portrayed in the film.
On February 20, 1959, Daily Variety reported that Alex Segal was originally set to direct the film, but quit the assignment. According to a September 9, 1959 Daily Variety article, producer Arthur Freed then hired brothers Denis and Terry Sanders to be director and associate producer respectively, but fired both after two weeks of shooting. A September 16, 1959 Variety article states that a disagreement about the portrayal of the "beat generation" and the Sanders brothers' characterization of "Mardou's" sexual promiscuity caused Freed to replace them with director Ranald MacDougall. A September 9, 1959 Hollywood Reporter article states that MacDougall took over directing on 4 September and shooting recommenced on 14 September 1959.
A Hollywood Reporter news items and production charts add June Walker, Pat Sauers, John Brennan, Bill Smith, Larry Gellert and Ricky Gellert to the cast; however, their appearance in the film has not been confirmed. Although a August 31, 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item states that Ruth Brady was assigned a lead role, it is likely she was replaced by another actor.
The film was shot in part on location in the North Beach and Telegraph Hill areas of San Francisco. The film marked the first onscreen appearance of jazz musician Gerry Mulligan, as well the film's music director, Andr Previn, who plays a harpsichord in a live jazz club scene with musicians Russ Freeman and Shelly Manne. Although The Subterraneans was the first feature length film adaptation of a Kerouac work, a short film based on Kerouac's writing, entitled Pull My Daisy, was produced in 1958, directed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie and starring beat poet Allen Ginsberg.