“Tortilla Flat,” based upon the John Steinbeck novel, veers wildly between the annoying and satisfying.Released in 1942 by MGM, it’s one of those studio films that casts well-known American Caucasian actors into non-Caucasian roles and expects audiences to believe it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and in “Tortilla Flat” you have to really suspend reality to believe Spencer Tracy and John Garfield as “paisanos” or in this case Mexican Americans.
It also doesn’t help that Tracy plays Pilon, who justifies his lazy, selfish tendencies at every turn. The movie begins with Danny (Garfield) in jail when he discovers that his recently deceased grandfather has left him two small houses. Pilon convinces a pliable Danny that he deserves to live in one of those houses. In a scheme involving rent and other friends, Pilon manages to live there rent-free.
As Danny pines for Dolores, the gang determines that a lonely old man known as The Pirate (Frank Morgan) has been saving his nickels and must have them buried somewhere. They pretend to be his friend in order to discover the location of the man’s riches. However, they find out he’s saving to buy a gold candlestick for the St. Francis statue at the local church.
For the first 40 minutes, I simply could not believe these actors as Mexican Americans. Tracy may have pulled off being Portuguese in “Captains Courageous” (directed by Victor Fleming, who also helms “Tortilla Flat”), but he doesn’t quite do it here. Garfield doesn’t even try. When Danny says to Dolores “Hello sweets,” you expect him to be wearing a trenchcoat and fedora while holding gun.
I laughed out loud when the wonderful character actor John Qualen – yes, he with the Scandinavian accent born to Norwegian parents – shows up as a paisano!
In addition, the film presents Pilon as a lovable rogue, but I didn’t love him at all. In fact, I quit watching the movie at one point because the character irritated me so much. I have not read Steinbeck’s book, so perhaps someone could shed light on whether Pilon is just as annoying of a character in print as he is on the screen, or if his antics are tempered in the book that did not happen on screen.
In fact, just as I was thinking all was lost, Morgan (above center, with Tracy left) shows up nearly unrecognizable halfway through the film, and finally an actor convinced me that he belonged in this story. In fact, Morgan gives a heartfelt portrait of a lonely man and his dogs, so genuinely touched by the men who offer friendship, who in turn are touched by his quest for the candlestick. Morgan received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his work and it’s a shame he didn’t win.
Redemption does come for Pilon and Danny, and Tracy the actor shines in one particular scene in a church, using his eyes rather than dialogue to show the change occurring inside Pilon.
As for the breathtaking Lamarr, she is convincing as the fiery Dolores, although there’s not much for Lamarr to explore beyond the expected love interest trappings of the story.
The second half of “Tortilla Flat” nearly saves the film as a whole, although I’m guessing MGM had high hopes that were not realized. If anything, watch the film for Frank Morgan’s rich performance, which is worth seeing.