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A sense of community and friendship among a group of vagabonds is tested by newfound money in the offbeat comedy-drama, Tortilla Flat (1942), based on the novel by John Steinbeck. In a small fishing village in California, the charismatic Pilon (Spencer Tracy) and his buddy Danny (John Garfield), live a simple existence. But when Danny inherits two small houses and Pilon and his gang move into one of them, the friendship is seriously affected.
Danny courts beautiful cannery worker Dolores "Sweets" Ramirez (Hedy Lamarr), while Pilon plots to steal the savings of an elderly dog lover (Frank Morgan). When the old man reveals that he plans to donate his money for candlesticks to honor St. Francis, the patron saint of animals, Pilon has a change of heart about the heist. Meanwhile, Danny and Sweets' romance has stalled (not helped by Pilon's interest in Sweets) and one of Danny's inherited houses burns to the ground. Fights break out, Danny's life hangs in jeopardy and Pilon comes to the rescue. All is forgiven at the end and the second house joins the fiery fate of the first, thereby eliminating the supposed source of all their woes.
Best known as the title role in The Wizard of Oz, Morgan received an Oscar® nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his Tortilla Flat role as the colorful pirate circled by canines, but he lost to Van Heflin in Johnny Eager. Others in contention that year were William Bendix in Wake Island, Walter Huston in Yankee Doodle Dandy and Henry Travers in Mrs. Miniver.
Tortilla Flat was in production in late 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Despite the grim outside news, most of the cast and crew remember filming as an enjoyable experience. Hedy Lamarr, who had worked with Tracy twice before, considered the role of Sweets Ramirez one of her best performances -- and one she had to fight for. "They said I couldn't play it, so I had a point to prove, to them and to myself," she wrote in her autobiography Ecstasy and Me. And Garfield said he savored the opportunity to watch Spencer Tracy work, already considered one of the greatest of American screen actors, even at this point in his career. Tracy won back-to-back Academy Awards in 1937 and 1938 (for Captains Courageous and Boys Town), the first actor to do so, and was nominated seven other times in his career.
Tracy had a reputation within Hollywood circles as a troubled alcoholic though he always conducted himself with professionalism on the set with few exceptions. In the biography Spencer Tracy by Bill Davidson, MGM executive Eddie Lawrence recalled that Tracy "was the kind of alcoholic who could take one drink and be gone. He fell asleep a lot during filming. On Tortilla Flat, he was supposed to say a line while he was cutting squid, and he just couldn't manage to get the line right. In the next line, a priest says to him, "It must have been something you drank, my son." Tracy broke up so that he couldn't work the rest of the day." For his own part, the actor considered Tortilla Flat "one of my worst, because I never could connect with the fishing village characters John Steinbeck wrote about."
Garfield, who was under contract at Warner Bros. and not likely to be loaned out to another studio, didn't land the role of Danny in Tortilla Flat easily. He desperately wanted to do the picture so he enlisted the help of John Steinbeck himself to lobby for him in the role. And MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer, who also wanted Garfield for the film, said he might be tempted to reveal that certain Warner executives had not honored their pledges to some charities if Garfield were not allowed to play in Tortilla Flat. The quasi-blackmail worked and Garfield was loaned out to MGM for the movie, sharing top billing with Tracy and Lamarr.
Once on the set, Garfield found that venerable director Victor Fleming was not above some clowning around at the actor's expense. In his biography, Garfield recalls shooting his first scene with Fleming at the helm: "The director called a halt and shouted: 'For Christ's sake, Garfield, you have to do better than that. I fought like hell to get you in this picture, so don't make me look like a fool.'" As Tracy snickered in the background, Fleming railed at Garfield some more and they shot the scene again. "Take it easy, Garfield, don't get too good. A lot of your scenes are with Hedy Lamarr. She's not what you'd call unoutclassable, and we can't let that happen. Let's take it again. Be better than you were the first time, but worse than the second."
Garfield eventually caught on to nonsensical ribbing from Fleming and Tracy, who had developed a strong relationship on past movie projects. In their careers, they worked together on 1937's Captains Courageous, which earned Tracy an Oscar; Test Pilot (1938); Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941); and A Guy Named Joe (1943).
Besides the three headlining stars and the Oscar®-nominated Morgan, Tortilla Flat is full of familiar faces. Flamboyant character actor Akim Tamiroff is featured as one of Tracy's paisanos. (He was nominated for Oscars® in 1936 for The General Died at Dawn and for 1943's For Whom the Bell Tolls.) Rounding out the cast are Sheldon Leonard (To Have and Have Not, 1944, It's a Wonderful Life, 1946), John Qualen (The Grapes of Wrath, 1940, Casablanca, 1942, Cheyenne Autumn, 1964) and Donald Meek (You Can't Take it With You, 1938, Bathing Beauty, 1944).
Although it had big name stars and was based on a popular novel, Tortilla Flat was not a box office success (despite a tantalizing movie tagline of "They're strong for wine, women and song!"). But many critics at the time praised its laid-back style and quirky sense of humor. "The director makes the most of its atmosphere and ingratiating attitudes, and an exceptionally strong cast," reads a Newsweek review at the time of its release. "The result is an unusual film that creates a reasonable facsimile of the Steinbeck flavor." Seen today, Tortilla Flat is a curiosity that offers the unusual sight of John Garfield and Hedy Lamarr playing working class Mexicans and racial stereotypes that would be considered condescending or even offensive now.
Producer: Victor Fleming, Sam Zimbalist
Director: Victor Fleming
Screenplay: John Steinbeck (novel), John Lee Mahin, Benjamin Glazer
Cinematography: Karl Freund
Film Editing: James E. Newcom
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Pilon), Hedy Lamarr (Dolores Ramirez), John Garfield (Daniel Alvarez), Frank Morgan (The Pirate), Akin Tamiroff (Pablo), Sheldon Leonard (Tito Ralph).
BW-100m. Closed captioning.
by Amy Cox