I’ve now watched the Frank Borzage pre-Code Man’s Castle, starring Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young, three times, after being intrigued by several postings about it on the Obscure Classics site. Sadly it is yet another classic from the early 1930s which hasn’t as yet been released on DVD. I find it a powerful and yet puzzling movie, because it is such a contrast with the grittiness of Warner Brothers dramas from the same period dealing with the same realities of the Great Depression, such as the early William Wellman films I’ve been watching and writing about recently. I haven’t seen very much Borzage and really need to see more of his work, but his romanticism definitely comes across in this film.
Borzage’s film is centred on a makeshift shanty town built by homeless and jobless people in New York, but it is worlds away from the scenes of the cardboard cities around the dumps and sewers in Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road. Here the temporary community is cast in a romantic light (literally, it is made to look beautiful in a maze of soft shadows) - even seen as the “castle” of the film’s title. However, that word “castle” has an ironic ring to it - this castle is still a shanty town. At times it is as if this movie is presenting two stories at once, the reality of the Depression and a romanticised dream version of it.
For me the strongest section of the film is probably its opening scenes. A homeless Trina (Loretta Young) first meets Bill (Spencer Tracy) in Central Park, where he is throwing stale popcorn to the birds, as she watches hungrily. He is wearing a suit and appears to be rich. When she reveals that she hasn’t eaten for two days and would like to eat some of that popcorn, he springs into action by marching her off to a restaurant, where they order a grand meal. However, at the end of the meal Bill calls the manager and reveals that he cannot pay, because he is as penniless as Trina – “She hasn’t got a bean, and nor have I”. He starts to harangue the assembled diners with a speech about all the poverty and homelessness surrounding them and how many people are going hungry, until the manager hastily chases them out without bothering to call the police. He doesn’t want his customers to listen to any more.
Bill reveals that the suit is really a prop - he has a flashing light under his jacket advertising a shop - and his home is in the shanty town by the river. Trina has nowhere to sleep and eagerly agrees to move in there too. In fact she seems to have no back story beyond the opening scene of the film – although she is hungry and homeless, she has no knowledge of life on the streets, and none of the toughness of characters Young plays in films like Wellman’s Midnight Mary. Puzzlingly, although she is supposed to have been wandering around for days, she is as well dressed as Bill, making it easy for him to take her to that restaurant – and they both seem to keep themselves and their clothes clean and tidy without the problems that they would be bound to face in reality. I also noticed that Bill has a window which he keeps open all the time in his cabin’s roof because he likes the fresh air, but there is never any problem with rain getting in, as there definitely would be in a Wellman film! Marjorie Rambeau, as a tough neighbour with a drink problem, and Arthur Hohl, as Bragg, another member of the camp community who constantly makes sexual advances to Trina, do add some realism to the picture.
However, the focus here isn’t on the business of everyday life, but on the central couple’s relationship. They are soon living together, with plenty of sexy and tender pre-Code scenes between them. Bill is deliberately gruff and constantly puts Trina down, but she recognises that his apparent grumpiness is an act to hide his fear of getting in too deep, and she responds with love and understanding. At times this means he seems like a chauvinist bully and she comes across as a doormat – telling him there are no ties and that he can leave whenever he wants, and even turning a blind eye when he has a fling with a showgirl, Fay La Rue (Glenda Farrell), as long as he comes home to her. The balance of power between the couple does change by the end of the film, but before that the sexism has become wearing. I must say I don’t find Trina a very believable character, because she is so insistently starry-eyed and idealistic – at one point even saying that she can’t imagine any heaven better than their life in the cabin. Bill’s damaged gruffness is much more believable. However, as I write this description of the relationship I’m aware that it is misleading, because it leaves out all the chemistry and tenderness between Tracy and Young which are at the heart of the film. This is a film where I find it easier to point out the flaws than to say what is so great about it, which is really the atmosphere and the mood – you have to see it, and I really hope there will be a DVD release to enable more people to do so! It must be one of the finest early performances by Tracy I’ve seen – Young has a more difficult part, because her character is less believable, but she still carries it through in luminous style. There are some later plot twists which I won’t go into, including one real shock before the end.
For further reading, here’s a link to an article from the Mubi site (formerly The Auteurs).