Saturday, July 30, 2011

'Tortilla Flat' an Odd Trip

“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.

All live to drink wine by day and scoff at those who work for a living, with Pilon finding ways to sustain their simple existences. When Danny takes a liking to the lovely Dolores (Hedy Lamarr, above with Garfield), Pilon sees danger – meaning if Danny takes a wife, he’ll need to support her and get a job. He may also cast out Pilon, who could no longer hold his friend under his thumb.

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.


  1. I've heard mixed things about this film. Sorry to hear that Tracy was a misfire. "Loveable Rogue" characters can be like nails on a chalkboard when they don't come off right. I can't really remember the characters from the original book, even though I read it. Needless to say, I don't remember anyone in it who resembled Hedy Lamarr.

    Still, interesting review. I can't help wondering what John Huston would have made of the material.

  2. I haven't seen, or I should say closely watched, "Tortilla Flat" for a long time. But your choice of the word "odd" rang true to me the minute I saw it. Great cast, great material, strange result.

    I tend to think Hedy could appear in any film requiring a drop-dead gorgeous female lead. That face - good grief. On the other hand, Tracy usually comes thru - in this one, tho, he just doesn't gel.

    But Frank Morgan. I adore him. His portrayal in "The Shop Around the Corner" is one of the most moving on film, I think. Is it possible his onscreen likability is such ("The Wizard of Oz") that his talent may be underestimated?

    Rachel makes a great point about John Huston who had such an affinity for Mexico (and had a home there for decades).

    Great post, CFB!

  3. I thought Spencer Tracy, played a great bum, who sometimes was quite likeable. John Garfield, was also good as the other bum. And I will never forget Frank Morgan, playing the hermit dog lover. Hedy Lamarr, proves once again that she is not just a pretty face, as she gives a great performance as a poor girl. I wish that Hedy Lamarr, had been in more movies. I always loved her performances.

  4. Hi Rachel: You are right about John Huston. The cast and the feel of the film would have been so different.

    Hi Eve: You are so right about Frank Morgan. Everyone knows him as the wizard, yet he did so much more, and his work was consistently outstanding.

    Hi Dawn: I'm glad you liked the film. Leonard Maltin had high praise for the leads. I need to see more films with Hedy Lamarr; I have a feeling she was underrated and underused as an actress.