Tortilla Flat is a poor community near Monterey, California. Danny (John Garfield) is one of a gang of layabout men in the town who avoid working, but things change for Danny for two reasons: he inherits two ramshackle homes and he sets eyes on a gorgeous newcomer, Dolores (Hedy Lamarr).
Dolores is attracted to Danny but she can't have a relationship with a man who won't work to support a family...suddenly Danny wants to work for a living, with his eye on buying a fishing boat. After all, what man wouldn't want to work for a wife who looks like Hedy Lamarr?!
Pilon (Spencer Tracy) thinks Danny is making a terrible mistake wanting to work and tries to sabotage Danny's new life.
TORTILLA FLAT is a film which succeeds only in fits and starts. At 105 minutes it's far too long, filled with sections which drag or are outright annoying, yet scattered throughout are moments of great beauty.
The scenes which work well are mostly thanks to Lamarr and the Oscar-nominated Frank Morgan, who plays a mysterious hermit surrounded by many dogs. This was Morgan's second supporting actor nomination, the previous one having been 1934's THE AFFAIRS OF CELLINI.
I watch a fair number of Spencer Tracy films -- most recently THE PEOPLE AGAINST O'HARA (1951) -- and I've gradually come to a rather surprising conclusion: I don't really enjoy him that much. I tend to gravitate to his films because I've always had a particular love for MGM movies and I'm enthused about the others in the casts. Perhaps my increasing negativity is impacted in part by what I know of his personal life, yet I'm often able to put unpleasant reality aside when it comes to the film work of other actors.
At times I find Tracy's underplaying to say "look at me" in the same way as an actor chewing the proverbial scenery. And it probably doesn't help that he plays selfish characters with some regularity, whether it's the manipulative jerk he plays in this film or the obnoxious editor in one of my favorite comedies, LIBELED LADY (1936). There are exceptions to the rule, however; for instance, I think he's excellent in SAN FRANCISCO (1936).
For me the joy of TORTILLA FLAT is in watching Hedy Lamarr, a much more interesting actress than she received credit for at the time. In one of my favorite scenes, she takes over the care of a hungry baby whose mother has died, while Danny watches, eyes shining. That's followed later on by Danny's very romantic gift to her of a vacuum cleaner. She lovingly inspects it as if it's diamond jewelry. Hedy's fans, and I'm certainly one of them, will want to watch the movie in order to enjoy her performance.
Garfield doesn't have all that much to do in this one; his character is more of a pawn, caught between Dolores and Pilon. Danny's acquiescence to Pilon's manipulations is hard to watch, and it's a relief when he finally stands up for himself and seeks employment.
Like any film of the era, actors of varying ethnicities appear in ostensibly Hispanic roles, with the cast including Allen Jenkins, John Qualen, Sheldon Leonard, Akim Tamiroff, Connie Gilchrist, and Henry O'Neill. Arthur Space has an early role as a potential suitor for Dolores. Yvette Duguay, who plays the mobster's wife loved by James Arness in THE PEOPLE AGAINST O'HARA (1951), was a little girl in the cast! Watch for familiar faces such as Louis Jean Heydt, Barbara Bedford, Willie Fung, and Walter Sande.
TORTILLA FLAT was directed by Victor Fleming. It was filmed in black and white by Karl Freund and the uncredited Harold Rosson and Sidney Wagner.
The Warner Archive DVD includes the trailer. It's a typically good-looking Archive print, with fine sound.
Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop.