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TORTILLA FLAT (director: Victor Fleming; screenwriters: from the novel by John Steinbeck/John Lee Mahin/Benjamin Glazer; cinematographer: Karl Freund; editor: James E. Newcom; 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), Donald Meek (Paul D. Cummings); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Victor Fleming/Sam Zimbalist; MGM; 1942)
“There’s something devilish about watching the gringo actors go Mexican and find themselves out in limbo in something as unreal and dumb as this harmless spoof.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Based on the John Steinbeck novel; it’s a series of warm-hearted anecdotes that are set in a small central California fishing village of Monterey, in the area of Tortilla Flat, populated by poor but happy Mexican immigrants who love “wine, woman and song.” Victor Fleming (“A Guy Named Joe”/”Gone with the Wind”/”The Wizard of Oz”), the venerable filmmaker, earnestly directs keeping things agreeable for the slight story and the screenplay by John Lee Mahin and Benjamin Glazer that keeps the paisanos (a mixed race with Spanish, Indian, Mexican and Caucasian blood running in their veins) as shiftless con artists and genial tramps (think Amos and Andy!).

Danny Alvarez (John Garfield) inherits a gold watch and two houses in Tortilla Flat from his recently deceased grandfather in Stockton. His indolent hustler best friend Pilon (Spencer Tracy) and other loafer amigo Pablo (Akin Tamiroff) convince the dim-witted jailer (Sheldon Leonard) to allow Danny out on parole, from his ten-day sentence for disorderly conduct, to celebrate his good fortune by getting drunk on wine that comes from selling the watch.

Pilon and his gang of loafers move into one of the houses, that somehow benefits free-loader Pilon more than houseowner Danny. But Danny busies himself courting the newly arrived beautiful cannery worker Dolores “Sweets” Ramirez (Hedy Lamarr), while Pilon plots to steal the savings of an elderly dog lover, known as “the Pirate” (Frank Morgan). But Pilon has a change of heart when he learns “the Pirate” planned to donate his money for candlesticks to honor St. Francis, the patron saint of animals.

Danny and Sweets’ romance runs into some problems when Pilon tries to move in on his buddy’s gal. Then one of Danny’s inherited houses burns to the ground. When the hot-headed and simple-minded Danny is injured in a drunken brawl, the cunning Pilon rescues Danny and then has another change of heart and uses his crafty skills to bring Danny and Sweets back together. With all forgiven again among the friends, the second house burns down and now Danny supposedly has no more woes.

It doesn’t play well in modern times for obvious PC reasons (like the offensive racial stereotyping) and even though it soon wore out its agreeable nature, there’s something devilish about watching the gringo actors go Mexican and find themselves out in limbo in something as unreal and dumb as this harmless spoof. The public didn’t take to it and it tanked big-time in the box-office, but most critics gave it a pass for its easy to take laid-back style.

REVIEWED ON 12/27/2007 GRADE: C+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”