"Tortilla Flat" makes no serious bid for immortality, but an open mind and some patience can find in it one of the happier ventures of the movie-year. Whatever Hollywood publicity may maintain, the name Spencer Tracy is not always synonymous with great acting, or Victor Fleming with spirited direction, or John Steinbeck with irrestible writing; "Tortilla Flat," with all three names, does not quite make the grade of any superlative. So much for immortality.
Still, if you are not too skeptical about religious miracles and can endure Fleming's all too faithful rendition of the lazy pace of California paisano life, you may enjoy the human warmth that-for all its general inconspicuousness--endeared the novel and has not been lost in transition to the screen. The trick is to be forewarned and not to expect a masterpiece.
Steinbeck's paisanos, remains of the original Spanish settlers above Monterey, are a simple, indolent, pleasure-loving lot who live in happy poverty on ramshackle Tortilla Flat. Pilon and his band of rascally idlers would rather filch their beloved food and wine and sleep out under the giant redwood trees than earn their keep by chopping squids in the town below. They are probably the most harmless, insignificant people alive, but Steinbeck's story of religious faith and the good works it inspired lifts them out of their humble uselessness, preaching the essential dignity of all mankind.
Except for Spencer Tracy, who, in the central role of Pilon, is nothing but Tracy wearing paisano rags, the cast is excellent. A de-glamorized Hedy Lamarr--as Sweets Ramirez, the can-factory worker-is infinitely more fetching than she ever was in silks and sables. Frank Morgan, playing the devout dog-loving old miser. Pirate, steals the show, and, as followers of Pilon, Michael Qualen, Allen Jenkins, and especially Akim Tamiroff are superb.