Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat

articles Culture & Arts

Maggie Van Ostrand

A Balloon in Cactus

John Steinbeck penned his famous book, Tortilla Flat, in 1935, and apparently never considered Hollywood’s casting choices when it was made into a film in 1942. If he had, he would’ve fallen flat himself, either from laughing or from astonishment.

Steinbeck’s classic is the sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant story of a group of Mexican amigos living in Tortilla Flat on California’s Monterey Peninsula. These friends are allergic to work, preferring to live in idyllic poverty. They are as lazy as they are impoverished, and use their wits to obtain food, shelter, women, and countless jugs of wine.

The group’s wily leader is Pilon, a crafty fellow who cleverly manipulates his shiftless friends into doing whatever shady deals will bring him the greatest personal benefits. Pilon is played by blue-eyed, redheaded Spencer Tracy, who speaks what sounds like a mixture of Portuguese, Spanish, and his native Milwaukee, as decreed by MGM’s Louis B. Mayer.

Pilon’s friend and favorite dupe is small-time crook, Danny Alvarez, who has inherited two houses and a gold watch from his late grandfather, and who later falls in love with Dolores Ramirez. Danny is played by John Garfield, famous for portraying boxing champions, truck drivers, and gangsters, and who neglected to lose his New York Lower East Side accent. Wait, casting gets even better when we see Dolores played by none other than blue-eyed Hedy Lamarr, who does nothing to disguise her Austrian accent. Haven’t heard enough yet? Read on.

A moth-eaten old vagrant called The Pirate, who lives in a shack with his many dogs, promises St. Francis a golden candlestick in exchange for saving a sick pup. The Pirate is played by blue-eyed Frank Morgan (Professor Marvel and The Wizard in The Wizard of Oz), who was nominated for an Oscar in Tortilla Flat. Must’ve been the tearjerker scene where all the dogs look up to see a vision of St. Francis coming down from heaven.

In case you think that’s not peculiar enough, Brooklyn born Connie Gilchrist, who usually played Irish washerwomen types named Hattie, Mollie, or Mrs. Feeny, was cast as the popular wine seller, Mrs. Torrelli.

Rounding out oddly cast fringe players are Russian-Armenian character actor, Akim Tamiroff wearing very dark make-up and sporting a heavy Slavic accent and, of all people, Sheldon Leonard. He’s straight out of a Damon Runyon short story and known for playing deadpan New York hoods. Allen Jenkins, another Damon Runyon character actor, plays Portagee Joe with a Brooklyn accent, and Henry O’Neil, who usually played district attorneys, doctors, and generals, shows up with a brogue as Father Juan Ramon.

To be fair, perhaps some of this eccentric casting was caused by the absence of better-suited actors who had gone off to fight in World War II. But that doesn’t explain Hedy Lamarr. Where was Dolores Del Rio when we needed her? (She didn’t make a movie between 1940 and 1943 so, presumably, she was available.) Too bad director Victor Fleming is no longer around to answer this question.

Even if he were, since he directed Frank Morgan in both Tortilla Flat and The Wizard of Oz, the question director Fleming could easily answer should really be “Was one of Pirate’s praying dogs played by the same Cairn terrier who played Toto?”

Published or Updated on: October 26, 2009 by Maggie Van Ostrand © 2009
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