Tortilla Flat has all the makings of a classic: director Victor Fleming, coming off the success of The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind; star Spencer Tracy, two years after his Best Actor win for Captains Courageous; and source material from John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath. But with an ultimately flimsy story and a focus on flat, obnoxious characters, the film showcases Fleming and Tracy at their worst.
The picture follows a group of poor Latinos—white actors in brownface, a despicable antiquity of the studio age—living in Monterey, California, as they enact harebrained schemes to pass the time and make easy money. While incarcerated for public drunkenness, Danny (John Garfield) discovers that he has inherited two homes from his dead grandfather. The cunning character Pilon (Spencer Tracy) springs Danny from jail, tricking him into ‘renting’ one of the homes, and eventually coerces the other Tortilla Flat denizens into doing his bidding. As Danny fights to stay on the straight and narrow, those around him fall into drunken stupors and moral pitfalls. Once Danny starts forming a real connection with Sweets, his gang—especially Pilon—becomes jealous and resentful. Tracy’s character is an evil trickster, a perfect fit for the actor if one can get past his odd accent. Garfield is another solid fit as the man everyone loves taking advantage of; he has a soft face, making it easy to feel empathy for his genuinely wanting what’s best for his friends. The standout of the picture has to be Hedy Lamarr as Sweets, Danny’s beloved. She’s a firecracker as a character and electric as a performer, her frustration with Danny potent and palpable in every scene. Her role isn’t large, but she grounds the film in a romance that keeps the plot exciting. Oscar-nominated Frank Morgan is another highlight of the cast; his performance is sweet and understated in a rather overstuffed picture. A confused nomad, wandering the forest—seemingly endlessly—with a gang of dogs at his heels, his character is endearing and sweet, but mostly forgettable.
The film’s main issue lies in the fact that not much happens in the story. From beginning to end, Pilon is the only character with any drive or volition. His scheming leads to everyone else’s troubles, from houses burning down to Danny’s falling out with Sweets. Most problems can be traced back to John Lee Mahin and Benjamin Glazer’s flimsy script, in which scenes drag on without any insight or forward momentum. In Steinbeck’s original novel, he imagined Tortilla Flat as a modern interpretation of the fabled Knights of the Round Table. That mythic quality is lost in translation to film, as instead, characters appear to just flail without purpose— Pilon attempting to selfishly pull the wool over everyone’s eyes. Many such issues were not unexpected; Steinbeck himself could not seem to grasp how the novel might best be adapted, and the Broadway iteration written by Jack Kirkland, premiering in 1938, lasted only five performances.1 Steinbeck famously offered MGM “$10,000 to just take it off the market.” Though he liked the screenplay for the film, he also pointed out that Mahin and Glazer took all the “message and drama” out of his novel.2
The film does a disservice to Garfield as a performer, heavily favoring Pilon over the former’s more appealing character and performance. Whereas Danny would be an endearing film lead, Pilon’s story works best in terms of Steinbeck’s novel. His self-indulgent tendencies and lack of remorse don’t sell him as an antihero, the film’s attempted portrayal. Instead, he is the direct antagonist to Danny, who’s just trying to set up a good life for himself. Even in situations that include a dying baby or considerable property damage, Pilon positions himself to best benefit from the occurrence. Tracy does an adequate job with what he’s given, but Pilon is written as little more than a disgustingly opportunistic schemer.
Danny and Sweets are obviously the beating heart of the film, two characters the audience wants to see beat the odds. Danny’s struggle to support himself in the face of demeaning poverty is captivating and emotional. Sweets’ character is an important addition in translation of novel to film, anchoring the story in a delightful romance. Danny, a tragic hero in the book, is given an ending in the movie that is deserved and cathartic. Pilon’s character arc, while extremely sudden, is important and pays off. It isn’t until the third act that seemingly loose strings come together and the story feels justified.
Tortilla Flat is an unfortunate example of the studio system at its worst. The film is a flat representation of source material stripped to its core in order to appease the widest audience, infusing it with a simplemindedness. The basic lives of Pilon and his friends are not as enchanting onscreen as in prose, and the film loses steam at an alarming rate. Despite the cast’s serious talent, not even the performances can save its momentum. Frank Morgan’s Oscar-nominated performance feels stale decades later. Spencer Tracy’s accent is grating by the third act. John Garfield’s Danny, the only character with any real pathos, is given a trite resolution. Steinbeck was right when he said the book would be difficult to adapt; without clear direction or strong visual choices, Tortilla Flat feels about as vibrant as the title suggests.
Where to Watch
Stream it on Warner Archive
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For More on Tortilla Flat
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References [ + ]
|1.||^||James Curtis, Spencer Tracy: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 444.|