Were someone to film the novel today, they would probably do things quite differently than did MGM. For one thing, they would cast some actual Hispanics or Latinos to play the paisanos, who claim Spanish and Mexican descent. Given a decent budget, they would use some location shooting and try to avoid the professional yet cheesy backdrops of the 1942 version. And maybe, just maybe, they would not subvert the whole point of view of Steinbeck's work and turn it into a conventional love story. These things would make this new movie a more faithful adapatation of "Tortilla Flat," but you know what? Not necessarily a more entertaining one.
Start with that casting. I knew John Garfield and Spencer Tracy co-starred with Hedy Lamarr in this version, but imagine my surprise when I saw these names in the opening credits: Allen Jenkins…Frank Morgan…these guys are playing the paisanos, mind you…John Qualen...Sheldon Leonard??? I never complain when I see these guys in the credits, but this is truly ethnicity-blind casting to the point of ridiculousness. You got to love the MGM attitude. We have a bunch of good hands available, and, by jove, (or Jumpin' Jiminy, as Qualen might normally say in one of his other roles), we’re gonna use them. And that's just the supporting cast.
As for those leads, Spencer Tracy in particular seems to have a good time. Danny is the ostensible lead role, but Tracy's Pilon is by far the most interesting character. Tracy plays him with a good dose of mischief and lightness, fake accent, floppy hat, and all. He's like a canny Chico Marx. The big problem with the MGM version is how it undermines the comic spirit of the source material. Instead of a story about a group of men who have "adventures" and adhere to their own unique way of thinking, the men become sidekicks to a love story between John Garfield and Hedy Lamarr. There is some color in the supporting cast--how can there not be with that group of actors--but it's a clear overhaul of the novel, one that strips it of its distinction and blows up a side relationship until it's a generic Hollywood romance.
Perhaps even worse is the "listen up, dummies," message that comes not 20 minutes into the screenplay, in which a character actually spells out to Pilon what Pilon is doing. The lame little speech tells not just Pilon but the audience that his motives are less than pure, that he is only looking out for his own self and that people are on to him. This shatters the wry tone of Steinbeck's novel, which lets readers know exactly what the score is without being so blatant, nor having the characters be so blatant.
Still, I can't be too grouchy about this one, which works as traditional glossy Hollywood entertainment. There's that fun cast. Garfield and Lamarr do look great together--Hedy looks great, period, of course--and the story, with its drastically different ending, works on its own terms if you're not picky about what's been done to Steinbeck. Though many of the book's rougher edges have been smoothed out, a few things remain for those who pay even scant attention. Take neighbor Mrs. Morales, owner of many chickens, and how she eyes Danny. I was pleasantly surprised by how clear it is in the film what Danny does for Mrs. Morales in exchange for her chickens.
Sometimes traditional glossy Hollywood entertainment gets the job done, and "Tortilla Flat" did so for me, even though it did a real number on Steinbeck's novel.