Monday, December 04, 2006
Tortilla Flat (Victor Fleming, 1942, B-)
This is an adaptation of the John Steinbeck book about a group of paisanos in California who work hard at not working hard. Danny (John Garfield) is the "hero" of the piece, trying to change his ways to impress Dolores (Hedy Lamarr), while his best friend Pilon (Spencer Tracy) spends most of the film conning people and trying to keep Danny away from Dolores. Tracy's accent is laughable, and the attempts at humor for the most part fall flat. Hedy Lamarr, who can give a good performance as evidenced by her work in H.M. Pulham, Esq. (King Vidor, 1941), spends most of her time overacting in a poorly written plot. My suspicion is that Lamarr needed a stronger director, someone more adept at handling women's parts, than Victor Fleming, who was often thought of as a "man's director." Myrna Loy and Vivien Leigh have given great performances under Fleming, but they were better actresses than Hedy. Lamarr needed more help than Fleming was able to provide.
The other great surprise was that Tracy could be so annoying. The bad accent had something to do with it, but most was due to the unlikable character he played. Pilon is selfish, sometimes cruel, and even as he tries to help Danny, it still feels like he's only doing it to make himself feel better. I suspect we were supposed to find Pilon's antics somewhat humorous, but instead he comes across as immature and destructive. The only thing funny about the movie is the accents and I doubt that was the intent (also, it's interesting to note that, once again, classic Hollywood hears someone with a foreign accent -- Lamarr -- and thinks they can play anyone with an accent, nevermind that Hedy's accent is German while her character's is Spanish -- kinda ruins whatever illusion of verisimilitude they were going for).
What saves the film is Frank Morgan's (Oscar-nominated) performance as Pirate, the old vagabond with a touching piety and gentle heart. It's no coincidence that Morgan has the best accent of the bunch and gives the best performance: he takes his character seriously, embodying the spirit of a simple man who loves dogs and St. Francis. Tracy, for all of his skill as an actor, never seems to take Pilon seriously as a character; Tracy always seems to be winking at the audience throughout his performance. Morgan's storyline -- a poor man who saves all of his money in order to buy a candle for the church -- is actually more interesting than the main one about Danny, Dolores, and Pilon. The scene where Pirate prays to St. Francis in the woods while his dogs yelp and jump at his feet is one of the truest displays of religious feeling I've seen in a film.