They’re Strong For Wine, Women and Song!
Tortilla Flat is one of the few John Steinbeck novels I didn’t have to read in either high school or college, so I am unfamiliar with it- and had never ventured into watching the 1942 film adaptation directed by Red Dust, Gone with the Wind, and Wizard of Oz veteran Victor Fleming.
The cast is a strong one, with Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr, Frank Morgan, and John Garfield leading the way in this tale of Mexican-Americans in the environs of Monterey, California. Don’t expect much in terms of ethnic accuracy here as with the exception of Lamarr as none of the key players come close to attempting any demographic accuracy here- though both Tracy and Garfield do imitate previous accents to varying degree. Tracy’s sounds very similar to that he used in Captain’s Courageous in 1937.
Spencer Tracy is Pilon, the leader of a group of friends who seem to do little but drink and sleep under the stars. In fact, avoiding any gainful employment is an active goal for the entire group. Pilon is a rather endearing sort of chap, but only as long as you don’t dive too deep into what he is actually saying. Perhaps he could be described as merely a good salesman, but he definitely works for himself.
That changes when Danny (Garfield) inherits two houses from his grandfather. From my perspective Pilon is self centered and deceitful in achieving his own goals. After they befriend a man (perhaps a “dog-whisperer”) known only as Pirate (Frank Morgan) and bring him into the house with them, they learn that he has stashed away almost a thousand dollars. He’s promised the money to St. Francis in return for healing one of his dogs. Of course Pilon plots to relieve Pirate of the burden of this money.
Pirate is himself probably the one only truly good character in the story, as most have their own demons and character flaws. In fact, he nearly steals the show with his sincere comraderie with his little pack of dogs and his trusting nature.
Running along with this plotline is a budding romance between Garfield and Lamarr. Danny (Garfield) evidently isn’t overly bright as he buys Lamarr an electric vacuum cleaner. We learn later that her home isn’t even wired for electricity. But it is the thought that counts, I would suppose. Neither actor seems to play a large enough role here, and especially Lamarr seems to be stuck in purely reactive mode. Both could have done more to make it a stronger picture but were dwarfed by Tracy’ star.
Pilon sees Danny’s dalliance as a distraction and worries that Lamarr may be able to pull Garfield completely away from his group of lazy drifters. So he mucks that up for Danny too. But enough spoilers.
Tortilla Flat isn’t a particularly well known film, and it deserves better than it has gotten. After its relative failure at the box office, MGM for the most part gave up on Hedy Lamarr, as if they blamed her for the results. She did go on to make a few more pictures under her contract with MGM, but never again did her pictures aspire to greatness.
The film sports a score by Franz Waxman, though to be honest outside of some arrangements of traditional songs there isn’t much to note in this arena.
Although Monterey isn’t that far from Hollywood, it is pretty clear that most, if not all of the picture was filmed on set. Many of the scenes are obviously set pieces, and the use of rear projection (especially in scenes at the cannery) is fairly strong and more distracting than you’d expect. It is very hard at times to displace the tangible cheapness that the preponderance of these factors gives to the resulting picture as they intrude anough to detract from the performances of the cast.
No matter for the most part as the story of friendship – ultimately and challenging though it may be to attain and preserve- manages to shine through.
Many have found Tortilla Flat to be stereotypical and trite. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a great film, replete with strong casting and a deep and sometimes humorous story.