Thursday, May 14, 2009

Tortilla flattened

I take as my text today the burning question: “Is it possible for a movie to waste two talented actors in Spencer Tracy and John Garfield?” The burning answer to this is: “Yes, and it was shown on TCM Tuesday night at 8pm—the 1942 M-G-M production Tortilla Flat, based on the popular novel by John Steinbeck.”

Right off the bat, I want to state that I was warned about Flat—Chon Noriega, the distinguished professor of cinema and media studies at UCLA who’s serving as Bobby Osbo’s sidekick during TCM’s Latino Images in Film festival this month, called the film a “car wreck” and explained that it’s one of those movies that you want to turn away from but can’t. I glanced at the cast list, and though I was concerned that such distinguished Hispanic actors like Tracy (Irishman from Chicago), Garfield (Jewish kid from the Lower East Side), Hedy Lamarr (Austrian girl), Frank Morgan, Sheldon Leonard, Allen Jenkins and John Qualen might not be able to pass as the inhabitants of a small fishing village in Southern California, I figured it couldn’t be that painful.

Oh, but was I ever wrong, faithful followers of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. As previously stated, I am a huge fan of John Garfield and have seen many of his films too many times to mention—but I don’t think there’s enough tequila in Juarez to get me to sit through Tortilla again. Actually, Garfield isn’t all that bad—it’s just that Tracy is so worse he rubs off on Julie. Tracy’s method of playing a Latino seems to involve two things: 1) deliver every line in a monotone, and 2) make certain not to use any contractions (he nearly beat out Kim Darby in True Grit [1969] in this sweepstakes). Tracy is considered by many classic movie fans to be one of filmdom’s consummate actors but I’d rather sit through his impression of Chico Marx in Captains Courageous (1937) and the next time I see that TCM spot with Burt Reynolds touting Tracy's acting talent I'm going to hunt ol' Bandit down and kick his teeth in.

To be brutally honest, I’m not sure which actor in this film is the worst; Morgan is positively appalling (I can’t believe he snagged an Oscar nom for this)—not because he’s not convincing (he isn’t) but because he’s so gooey and cloying as a devoted dog lover. But Leonard, Jenkins and Qualen are probably worse; the first two sound as if they just finished an episode of radio’s The Damon Runyon Theater and I was surprised that Qualen didn’t resort to a few “yumpin’ yiminys’ (although the censor probably saw to that, since it might have been pronounced ‘humpin’ himiny”).

Flat, according to Hal Erickson at, “is not so much a movie as a series of warm-hearted anecdotes, all linked to a small California fishing village populated by poor but happy immigrants.” He mentions the “seemingly improvised songfest” between Tracy and Garfield (Ay, Ay, Paisano!) as one of the film’s highlights—which I will readily acquiesce is a great moment. But apart from the loveliness of Lamarr and a good turn by Akim Tamiroff—who, though Russian, comes closest to pulling off the Latino masquerade—I’m hard-pressed to see how Leonard Maltin gave Flat three stars in his indispensable Classic Movie Guide. (I just hope Len’s that generous to his employees come Christmas time.)

Laura at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings is taking a Disneyland Paris sabbatical but she mentioned in a post last week that there were a few new titles available at the Warner Archive, notably some John Garfield vehicles. I moseyed on over to find Four Daughters (1938), Castle on the Hudson (1940), The Fallen Sparrow (1943) and Pride of the Marines (1945) all there for the taking; TCM is planning on showing Marines over Memorial Day weekend so I crossed that off my list, and I already have Sparrow, which I bought a year ago on a Region 2 disc (let me just say that if you have never seen this crackerjack suspenser—which co-stars Maureen O’Hara and Walter Slezak—you need to do so at your earliest opportunity). (As for Daughters, I’m sure that’ll be around the next time one of the Lane sisters celebrates a birthday.) I went ahead and purchased Hudson...and of course, as it would also happen, snagged Lost Boundaries (1949) and The Trail of ’98 (1928) as I was leaving as well.

Hudson is a B-film that wouldn’t have any difficulty passing itself off as a A, chiefly because Julie’s co-stars are Ann Sheridan (as his fiancée) and Pat O’Brien (as the warden of Sing Sing, where Garfield is doing a five-to-thirty-year stretch) in this tale of tough guy Tommy Gordon (Garfield) finally being nabbed by the long arm of the law. At seventy-seven minutes in length, it’s short and sweet: Julie tries to buck the prison system but finds himself no match for the tried-and-true methods of kind-but-firm O’Brien; Garfield’s refusal to go along with inmate Burgess Meredith on a bust-out (it takes place on a Saturday, which is Julie’s “hard luck” day) convinces Pat that Julie has reformed; he allows the inmate leave to visit Sheridan when she’s laid up after a car accident but he meets up with the joker (Jerome Cowan) responsible for Annie’s condition and during a display of fisticuffs, Sheridan shoots Cowan to save Julie. Garfield eventually returns to the prison (well, he gave the warden his word) but finds himself headed for the chair when he’s tried and convicted for Cowan’s murder (and Sheridan is unable to convince anyone she’s responsible).

Hudson is a remake of a 1932 Warner film entitled 20,000 Years in Sing Sing—based on the best-selling book by Warden Lewis E. Lawes, and starring Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis (in their only onscreen teaming) in the Garfield and Sheridan roles; I prefer Hudson largely due to the Garfield factor but both movies are well worth a look-see. Hudson has most of the Warner stock players on parade here: Henry O’Neill, John Litel, Margot Stevenson, Willard Robertson, etc.; Guinn “Big Boy” Williams is both funny and touching as a Death Row inmate who realizes he won’t have enough time to master the harmonica and Barbara Pepper (well before her Doris Ziffel days) is the cute blonde seated on the piano (that’s right, on the piano) in the apartment belonging to Garfield’s chum (Billy Wayne). The print of Hudson is a bit beat-up in places but I certainly don’t regret the investment, particularly when it comes to a Garfield flick.


Rick Brooks said...

At the risk of being drummed off your blogroll (maybe with a ceremonial drumroll?), I admit that I kind of liked "Tortilla Flat" when I saw it last year, though not really for the reasons MGM wanted me to.

Still, your trashing of it is hilarious, and I'm not gonna argue any of your points. I certainly can't defend many of the performances, even though I love most of that great cast.

Scott said...

I'm almost tempted to watch Tortilla Flat just to see Frank Morgan give a bad performance, something I would have sworn was impossible -- and who wouldn't want to see the impossible? But if a “seemingly improvised songfest” between those celebrated crooners Tracy and Garfield is one of the highlights of the picture, then I think I'll just take your word for the crappiness of the surrounding scenes.

Chris Vosburg said...

Ivan, I stumbled across your blog, late, as you know-- so I'm late to the party on this post which was referenced in a "things you might also like" for a Ka-Nigget Sir Galahad Serial post from 2012 (possibly because of the Arthurian refs in Steinback's novel?).

Handfulla things I gotta get off my chest:

1) Hated the movie. Every point you've made about the performances is right on. Are you guys supposed to be Italian, or Portuguese, or what, because no one who'd been there would ever take your accent for anything close to what was spoken by California latinos.

2) Hated the book. Sorry, Steinbeck was something I was made to read as a kid, and bored the hell out of me. Still can't get over that-- the books I was made to read were books that actually discouraged any interest in reading: "Silas Marner", anyone? Fortunately, I was made of stronger stuff and continued reading, but I'd pay good money not to read Steinbeck.

3) Both the book and movie completely and offensively mischaracterize latinos. If I loaned a DVD of this movie to a latino friend he would undoubtedly return it with a punch in the face, it is that offensive. No latino would ever see himself in this movie (and indeed none were cast). It's like Amos 'n' Andy, except with latinos.

4) Steinbeck is a very, very white guy from Salinas, who knew as much about latino culture as David Mamet (Spanish Prisoner, Heist) knew about criminality, having done a cursory review of it from the other side of a wide cultural chasm.

5) Hollywood in general didn't know shit either, and was still casting latinos as comedy relief only, well into the sixties. They still called them "Spanish" then, as they called the number of Mexican restaurants which had flourished in Los Angeles since long before we got here.

6) Growing up in San Gabriel in the fifties, I numbered among my childhood friends a number of latinos. They never called each other, or me, "paisano," and I have to this day never heard a latino call another latino "paisano."

7) Lastly, Ivan [laughing], Monterey is not considered part of Southern California. For the record, that would be generally anything from Los Angeles down.

There I feel better now. Thank you.

Chris Vosburg said...

And I'll tell somethin' else fer nothin' Sonny, and that's about a last add:

The Latin Spitfire character.

Truth to tell, they were so much fun, I can't despise the caricature: from Dolores del Rio to Rita Moreno, loved them all, but I gotta say, top of the pops is Lupe Velez, who showed up in Errol Flynn's biography, "My Wicked, Wicked, Ways" as delivering the following line while Errol was pummeling a man who had insulted him:

"Geev eet to heem, beeg boy!"

Chris Vosburg said...

Last add from the childhood memoir:

There were a handful of Mex restaurants in San Gabriel, and I can't remember which one-- either El Poche or El Gordo-- that had a big-ass neon sign on top advertising, so help me, and no this is not a typo, "BEEG THEEK STEAKS", with a cartoon sombrero waving guy.

It was difficult, introducing local culture to the locals [laughing], and the restaurant was doing its best, as we all do our best to assimilate into whatever culture we are forced to endure.

But I think the restaurant was doing something extremely clever, which I've seen elsewhere:

Ya ever hear a gay guy call himself a fag? It's kind of the same deal-- it sort of unravels the name calling and stereotypes, and forces you to discard them.


Yes I know, in your language, our "i" sounds like your long "e" and is hereby acknowledged, yeah we get it. Let's move on (the restaurant and sign do not exist now).

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

You say "beeg theek steaks" like that's a bad thing.

Sorry, Steinbeck was something I was made to read as a kid, and bored the hell out of me. Still can't get over that-- the books I was made to read were books that actually discouraged any interest in reading: "Silas Marner", anyone?

I'm in agreement with you re: Silas Marner, which was probably the worst book I read in high school (in college, it was Look Homeward, Angel) but I liked Steinbeck from the moment I read Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath is my favorite novel of all time. (As always, YMMV.) But yeah, Tortilla Flat is pretty bad.

Chris Vosburg said...

I really shouldn't be so hard on Steinbeck, Ivan, it was just me and the age I was when I asked to read his works.

I was, in third or fourth grade, forced into a "Great Books" program, designed and hosted by the principal of the school himself, which sought to sort of accelerate the literate development of what were known then as "gifted" students, an embarrasing moniker sure to get you beat up on the playground if it were known to the other kids.

It was just too early for me-- yeah, I could read, and did, a lot, but I was a Science Fiction fan, and believe it or not, when I suggested Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels as the subject of a book report for this program, was smarmily told, "no, it has to be serious literature, not some comic book."

Wow, good thing I didn't try "Lord of the Rings" on him, I'd have been laughed out of the program altogether. Is it any wonder I have a deeply abiding problem with authority figures?

Thanks again [laughing] for the opportunity to dump all over Steinbeck and Tortilla Flat, Ivan.