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.
As a gangster film made only the year after The Public Enemy, directed by William A Wellman and starring Edward G Robinson and Loretta Young, this could have been a masterpiece. Sadly, it isn’t. The big problem is that it is supposedly set in the San Francisco’s Chinatown, but almost all the characters are played by Caucasian actors – something which was done in many films in the 1930s, but was criticised even then. I found a contemporary review from The New York Times which pointed out the wild mis-casting of Robinson.
I’m only going to write a brief review of this film, but wanted to say that it does have its moments, as you’d expect from any film directed by Wellman – and Robinson in particular has some powerful scenes despite everything. I also liked the dark, shadowy cinematography by Sidney Hickox, who worked with Wellman on other pre-Codes like Safe In Hell, The Purchase Price and Frisco Jenny – whichalso has scenes in Chinatown. It’s just a shame that the print I saw isn’t very good and so there are some scenes where, amid the darkness, it is hard to work out exactly what is going on.
Richard Barthelmess might be best known as a star of silent films, but I think he was equally good in early talkies, when his boyish looks were starting to fade. He was great as a tormented wartime aviator in Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (1930) – and he gives another powerful performance as a drug-addicted veteran of the First World War in William Wellman’s Heroes For Sale (1933). For me this is one of the strongest offerings in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three, though it possibly goes off the boil for a bit in the middle.
This film, one of a number which Wellman made focusing on the Great Depression, follows Barthelmess’ character, Tom Holmes, from the trenches of France through to a peacetime battle in America, a march by the “forgotten men”, war veterans desperately seeking work. Both the opening in the trenches and the march of the unemployed men near the end are set amid torrential rain, which features in so many early Wellman films and seems to express the overwhelming forces bearing down on his heroes. The original working title of the film was Breadline, but it was changed to the more dramatic and bitter Heroes For Sale, underlining the theme of war veterans who can’t make a living in peacetime. However, the film isn’t just sympathetic to old soldiers, who are not particularly romanticised, but to everyone struggling in the Depression, and the hard years leading up to it.
If you like either William Wellman or Loretta Young, I’m prepared to bet you would love this dazzling pre-Code film. Made at MGM, it blends that studio’s sexy glamour with Warner-style grit, and moves at a cracking pace to cram so much into just 74 minutes, with fast, witty dialogue and not a scene or a moment wasted.
I find myself grouping this one together with the slightly earlier film I’ve just reviewed, Frisco Jenny, since both are tales of women driven to murder, showing what took them to that point and culminating in the courtroom. (I also think of them together because they share a DVD in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume 3 box set.) However, for me Midnight Mary is the more powerful movie of the two – and it is also more fun.
If you ask around among James Cagney fans about which of his movies they’d most like to see get a DVD release, this pre-code film will be near the top of the list. It was a huge box office success at the time, and is memorable in his career for several reasons.
It’s the film where Cagney has his first extended dance scene (there is a brief dance scene in the earlier Other Men’s Women, but you see more of his footwork here) – and the film with his first, and longest , scene speaking Yiddish. Most famously, it’s also the movie where he (almost) says “You dirty rat” – though the actual wording is “Come out and take it, you dirty yellow-bellied rat.”
James Cagney and Loretta Young
The movie also features another major star, Loretta Young, who is at her luminous pre-code best here. It’s full of the trademark Warner grittiness, and packs a breathtaking amount of comedy, quickfire dialogue, action and melodrama into just under 70 minutes. Yet this movie has never been released on VHS, let alone DVD – and in the UK it is never even shown on TCM. Surely Warner Brothers should come up with a lovely remastered print soon in one of their box sets!