Monday, January 02, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Tortilla Flat (1942) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

TORTILLA FLAT (1942), MGM's filming of the John Steinbeck novel, is available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

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.


Blogger barrylane said...

I believe you hit the nail on Spencer Tracy's head, and hammered it in at just about the right depth. On the other hand, Gable and Tracy are a lot more entertaining than either Abbot and Costello or Martin and Lewis. More depth, more fun, and while Gable isn't quite the straight man, nor Tracy the comic, in fact quite the opposite for both, they are not only a million laughs, but kind of on screen friends forever.

9:33 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks, Barrylane. I suspect it's not a typical view, but it's been gradually growing on me.

I do think that's a fair comment about Gable and Tracy. As I read it I realized that their films together are the ones in which I like Tracy the best, including the one I mentioned in my review, SAN FRANCISCO. They're a good team; I think Gable helps bring out a more appealing side of Tracy's personality.

Best wishes,

9:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The truth will,out! I'm not a big Tracy fan either! My favorite of his is Bad Day at Black Rock.
Even Hepburn and Tracy weren't my favourite pairing. Much preferred Hepburn and Grant.
He was a fine actor, no doubt about that.

12:25 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Very interested to hear you aren't much of a Tracy fan either, Vienna! I like some of the Tracy-Hepburn films but haven't found they have worn as well over the long haul.

I do love Hepburn and Grant -- HOLIDAY and BRINGING UP BABY are great, and I am fortunate to have fond memories of seeing both on a big screen when I was a kid, at L.A. revival houses.

Best wishes,

11:27 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Add Philadelphia Story to your Grant/Hepburn list, and Sylvia Scarlett. Yes...?

6:39 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

THE PHILADELPHIA STORY is a good catch! Have seen it countless times, most recently at a TCM Classic Film Fest a couple years back.

SYLVIA SCARLETT is the only Grant-Hepburn film I've not seen, while I've seen the others multiple times. Just never appealed to me... Is it worth a try?

Best wishes,

10:12 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Laura, Sylvia Scarlett is fascinating with an usual Grant performances that taps into his musicality, and Bristol background. he is dangerous, witty and the center of gravity, even though he is in support. Occasionally compared to his work in None But The Lonely Heart, but not really the same. Cannot recommend it more highly despite some incredibly annoying moments, none of which concern Cary Grant.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Very interesting feedback on SYLVIA SCARLETT! I checked and I do have it in a Hepburn set I picked up on sale a while back, so I'll have to keep it in mind. There are relatively few Grant films I've not seen from the mid '30s on, and this is one of them. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on his performance, I appreciate it.

Another film in that set I've been meaning to try is UNDERCURRENT -- Vincente Minnelli, Robert Taylor and Robert Mitchum plus Hepburn sounds kinda different!

Best wishes,

10:37 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Lamarr is teriffic in this movie. Had my doubts she could pull off such a role as this with her reputation as a glamor girl but she was the best thing by far in this hit and miss film.

11:11 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you for sharing your thought on Hedy Lamarr's performance. I'm so glad you enjoyed her in it as much as I did. She was much more talented on screen than she sometimes receives credit for.

Best wishes,

11:34 PM  
Blogger Gene K. said...

Came for pictures of Hedy, but stayed for the commentary. Wasn't aware of Tracy's personal demons, but a quick Google search was illuminating.

Will have to look up this film...looks entertaining.

Well done.


Gene K,

4:52 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks very much for visiting and for your kind words, Gene. Hope you find the movie worthwhile.

Best wishes,

1:15 PM  

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