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Tortilla Flat (DVD Review)

11 Jul, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr, John Garfield, Frank Morgan.

Director Victor Fleming’s moderately weighted but still slightly overlong 1942 movie of John Steinbeck’s first bestseller illustrates a lot of what was both slick and snapless — and yet in other ways wonderful — about MGM during the Louis B. Mayer years. A lot of the time, even the studio’s venerated star power had a tendency to work at cross-purposes in terms of verisimilitude, but most reasonable minds will recognize the fool’s-errand aspect of even halfway dissing that historically unmatched arsenal of ammo.

Which is to say that whenever I gaze at my nearby multiplex’s marquee these days, I’m reminded of that feeling I occasionally used to get watching Hollywood Squares when host Peter Marshall used to tell his contestant to “pick a star” and one was immediately tempted to shout, “Where?” For Flat, MGM was not only able to pluck from its own pedigreed stable. It borrowed one of the biggest actors from Warner Bros. as well.

Working from a John Lee Mahin-Benjamin Glazer screenplay that is said to have up-ended a lot of Steinbeck’s original, the picture casts Irish Spencer Tracy, Viennese Hedy Lamarr, Jewish John Garfield and Oz-ling Frank Morgan as Northern California Hispanics — or paisanos — who live, loaf, imbibe wine and pack a lot of fish at the area canneries. This is the way casting directors did things back then in a way that wouldn’t fly today — yet what the result lost in atmosphere or perhaps a moral or good-taste obligation to cast ethnic roles ethnically, they lost in abandoning the chance it gave audiences to see favored actors perform heavier lifting than they generally do today. This is one of many reasons we no longer find stars on the marquee.

To this end, one is initially prepared to roll some eyes over the casting of, say, Lamarr and Garfield (who had already played Mexican Gen. Porfirio Diaz in home studio Warner’s 1939 biopic Juarez). Yet the two stars have delightful chemistry — both romancing and yelling at each other — and there aren’t many movies where Lamarr, for all her drop-dead gorgeousness, seemed this alive. The two are also exceptional physical subjects for cinematographer Karl Freund, who sometimes makes the movie look like a moving-image version of those pricey coffee table books devoted to Hollywood glamour photography.

It’s tougher to make up one’s mind about Tracy, whose casting and makeup seems more of a stretch despite that ability he had for his entire career (one where he really never ever looked young) to rivet your eyes to the screen. Tracy has an odd role here as a kind of lazy agitator who tries to use Garfield’s unexpected recent inheritance (two houses from his grandfather) to his own advantage. One of the dramatic problems is that when Tracy is on the screen, Lamarr usually isn’t, and it’s the Lamarr-Garfield dynamics that make this a different (and better) picture.

Even by old-school standards, Morgan requires a hearty dose of viewer tolerance. But if his belated screen appearance sucks a lot of the wind from what has been a fairly agreeable ramshackle narrative, it’s due less to him personally than it is to the fact that his character is a handful by today’s standards. He’s an old peasant saving his pennies to buy a gold candlestick for St. Francis of Assisi, to be placed in a church run by one of those old movie priests (Henry O’Neill) who say “my son” a lot. A sentimental streak, which extends to the climactic event of the movie, is too much for delicate screen material that ultimately licked writer/director David S. Ward (1981’s Cannery Row) and gave Rodgers & Hammerstein one of their relatively few misses on Broadway with Sweet Thursday. The movie is kinder to its impoverished classes than, say, John Ford’s hit-and-miss movie of Tobacco Road from the previous year, but Ford’s movie is significantly more lively.

Like a lot of MGM movies, Flat feels studio-bound; Fleming and Freund can’t obscure the fact that everything is taking place on set (though, having said that, it’s quite a backlot piece of work). But there are individual shots, usually close-ups of actor’s faces, that really do burn in the memory — adding more clout to the career of a cinematographer who went from shooting Universal horror in the ‘30s (Freund even directed Karloff’s The Mummy in a one-shot) to becoming top photographic dog on “I Love Lucy” in the ’50s. I always thought the last gig might have come about because a year after Flat, Freund shot Technicolor DuBarry Was a Lady at MGM. And it is the one movie where Lucille Ball looks unequivocally beautiful.

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