Cast & Crew
In Monterey, California, paisano Danny Alvarez inherits a gold watch and two houses in the area known as Tortilla Flat from his grandfather. Because Danny is in jail for public drunkenness, his friends, Pilon and Pablo, convince jailer Tito Ralph to "parole" Danny to celebrate and invite Tito to come along. Pilon warns Danny that property and watches bring unwanted responsibilities and cajoles him into selling the watch for some wine. On the way to celebrate in one of the houses, Danny meets Dolores Ramirez, a "Portagee" girl to whom Danny is attracted and names "Sweets." During the party, Pilon talks Danny into renting the other house to him, then convinces Pablo to live with him and pay the fifteen dollars rent. The next day, while Danny serves out the rest of his jail term, Pilon and Pablo find Portagee Joe and Jose Maria Corcoran drunk in the back yard and invite them to live in the house for the three dollars which Jose Maria has. That night, Danny goes to see Sweets, who likes Danny, but has ambitions for a husband, a home and children who don't have to pick beans for a living. When Pablo summons Danny because Pilon's house is on fire, Danny does not care and passionately kisses Sweets, but she throws him out after threatening him with a knife. After the fire, Pilon and the other paisanos, accompanied by a young widower with a baby they met watching the fire, go to Danny's house. Because the baby is starving, Danny goes to Sweets to get milk from her goats and, seeing how gentle Sweets is with the baby, Danny becomes even more smitten. The next morning, Pilon worries about paying his rent and becomes intrigued by The Pirate, a shabby old man who lives with several dogs in a chicken coop. Pilon surmises that Pirate must be a miser because he sells twenty-five cents worth of wood each day, yet never spends anything. Hoping to get Pirate's money, Pilon convinces the old man to come and live at Danny's, saying that his friends worry about him. Meanwhile, Danny visits Sweets at the sardine cannery where she works and gets into a scuffle with the foreman when he is told to leave. Walking by the bay, Danny sees a small fishing boat for sale for $210, then goes to pawn his guitar in exchange for a vacuum cleaner for Sweets. Back at home, Danny is not happy that Pirate and "his boys" are new tenants until Pilon tells him about Pirate's money. Danny then confesses to Pilon that he needs money to buy a boat. The next day, when Pirate reveals that he needs one thousand quarters to buy a gold candlestick for St. Francis, which he had promised the saint if one of his dogs recovered from a serious illness, Pilon is ashamed and resolves to safeguard Pirate's bag of quarters. Now knowing that he has no other choice, Danny gets a job at the cannery. When Pilon finds out, he knows that it is because of Sweets and fears that she will make the paisanos leave the house if she marries Danny. Pilon lies to Danny that she has been bragging that they are engaged, then steals the vacuum and uses it to buy wine. That night, Sweets angrily accuses Danny of the theft and he counters by accusing her of spreading a story about their engagement. She then slaps him and orders him out. Meanwhile, at the house, after Portagee Joe takes six quarters from Pirate's bag, an angry Pilon recounts the money and discovers that Pirate has more than enough to buy the candlestick. When Danny comes home, he knocks Pilon down when Pilon insults Sweets, then grabs a jug of wine and leaves. The next day, after washing and grooming Pirate, the paisanos take him to church to see the candlestick and hear Father Juan Ramon, who gives a sermon about the candlestick and the miracle of Pirate's dog's recovery. That same morning, a drunken Danny goes to the cannery to see Sweets and is again told to leave. In a fight with several foremen, Danny is accidentally crushed in one of the machines. Later, at the hospital, Pilon learns that Danny's lung has been punctured and he is near death. When Sweets hysterically lashes out at Pilon, he goes to the woods and overhears Pirate telling his dogs about the sermon. Pilon then goes to the church, where his prayers to St. Francis are overheard by Father Juan, who is touched when Pilon offers to buys another candlestick if Danny gets well. Some time later, Father Juan finds Pilon cutting squid and tells him that "someone's prayers have been answered" because Danny is much better. Father Juan adds that Sweets is sorry for her anger and that all of his friends are worried. As the priest leaves, he says that St. Francis does not need another candlestick but would be grateful if Danny somehow had a boat. Some time later, Danny and Sweets are married and a raffle is held for Danny's guitar. Unknown to all but Father Jaun, Pilon himself paid for the tickets, and the money was used to buy Danny the boat. That night, as Pilon and the paisanos drink in Danny's house, Pilon concludes that it was the house that caused all of Danny's troubles. When a fire accidentally starts, the paisanos decide to sleep on the beach and let the house burn.
Louis Jean Heydt
St. Brendan's Boys Choir
Robert J. Kern
John Lee Mahin
James E. Newcom
Edwin B. Willis
Best Supporting Actor
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
The AFI Catalogue list Sammy Fong in the role of "Squid Owner". This may have been a typographical error in studio records, since Willie Fung, who was not listed, had a very similar role.
The opening title card reads, "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer presents Spencer Tracy Hedy Lamarr John Garfield in Victor Fleming's Production of John Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat." The following written prologue precedes the story: "In the California hills just outside the old seaport town of Monterey live warmhearted people of laughter and kindness-the paisanos. They, and their ancestors, have lived there for a hundred or two years, in a little world of their own called Tortilla Flat." The term "paisano," which literally means a friend or compatriot, also refers to persons of Hispanic or mixed Hispanic and Native American ancestry who resided in the country towns of Northern California.
According to a 1935 Hollywood Reporter news item, Paramount initially bought the screen rights to Steinbeck's novel. M-G-M had acquired the rights to the novel by 1940, however, as verified in a 1940 short produced by Frank Whitbeck for the studio that announced the film as "coming" and starring Spencer Tracy. Although the film included many of the characters and situations of the novel, several aspects of the story were changed. In the novel, Sweets is a minor character and does not marry "Danny," who dies after a fall. In the novel, it is "Danny," a recently discharged veteran, who dwells on the responsibilities of property and sinks into an alcoholic depression that ultimately leads to his death. In the novel, "Danny" and "Pilon" do work seasonally, while in the film, much dialogue is devoted to a discussion of their loathing of work.
According to news items, M-G-M had wanted to borrow Rita Hayworth from Columbia to play the role of "Sweets Ramirez," and actors Desi Arnaz and Rags Ragland were both tested for parts in the film. John Garfield was borrowed from Warner Bros. for the film. Actor Robin Raymond was included in the cast in a Hollywood Reporter news item, but his appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. According to a pre-production news item, actress Maria Montez was tested for a role in the film. Other news items indicate that some exteriors and backgrounds for the film were shot on location in Monterey, CA, and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was to have written five new musical sequences for the film. The extent of Castelnuevo-Tedesco's participation in the released film has not been determined. Actor Frank Morgan received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as "The Pirate" in the film.