Saturday Editor’s Pick: Man’s Castle (1933)

by on October 30, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat Nov 5 at 5:00 at Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]


MoMA gives film historian par excellence James Curtis (we at Alt Screen are huge fans of his James Whale biography) carte blanche over the weekend, and Pre-Code fans have much reason to rejoice: in honor of his recently released book Spencer Tracy: A Biography, Curtis has shrewdly programmed five of the actor’s uber-rare early performances.


And do we mean rare! Allegedly, only a dupe negative exists in the studio vault, preventing a DVD release of Man’s Castle (the circulating print, however, is beautiful). And not even our most dependable sources have rummaged up a decent copy of Quick Millions (playing Sat Nov 5 at 8:00). Of this, Tracy’s debut as a leading man, Bruce Bennett writes for the NY Sun:

Using dissolves, sound bridges, long takes, and character punctuating close-ups, Rowland Brown blessed “Quick Millions” with both gutter swagger realism and pulp expediency. It is the most undervalued directorial debut in the history of American film.


In other words, we highly recommend you camp out this weekend. (Although good luck deciding between Tracy and Walter Hill, appearing with our Sunday Editor’s Pick The Driver at 7:30.)

“I tell you, go!” Glenn Kenny commanded when Man’s Castle played at Film Forum a few years back, for Some Came Running:

Yes, this is a pre-code picture, and it more than delivers from that angle. But where it really delivers is in poetry; here is an example of Borzage working at the height of such expressive powers, and it’s breathtaking. “This is almost as good as Vigo’s L’Atalante,” I said to myself at one point.



Dave Kehr, similarly presents a rave hard to ignore, for The Chicago Reader:

Frank Borzage’s 1933 masterpiece stars Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young as two lovers who transcend the Depression in a New York shantytown. Few love stories have achieved the emotional intensity of Man’s Castle, and most of the others belonged to Borzage as well. He possessed the most delicate romantic sensibility in the movies, and his films are pervaded by a sublime spiritual quality that no one else has been able to capture. Leave your prejudices at home—this should be appreciated on its own terms.


Kehr has on similar occasions noted this film’s striking omission on DVD, as does Jonathan Rosenbaum for DVDBeaver:

Frank Borzage’s most potent sound picture remains unavailable everywhere. But this was a movie made at Columbia, not Fox, and apparently not even the star power of Spencer Tracy suffices to put this item on the market. He plays a spiky scrambler in Manhattan during the Depression opposite an equally homeless Loretta Young. The two wind up living together in a Hooverville shack (alluded to in the film’s ironic title) where she becomes pregnant, and I suspect that at least part of the problem may be the eroticism (including some brief nudity) and the complete lack of sentimentality that have always made this a beleaguered picture. It was certainly a commercial flop. Over 30 censorship cuts were made even before the film was released, and this didn’t prevent some critics from complaining about the harshness of what remained. “This is the saga of a roughneck you wouldn’t put up in your stable,” the Variety reviewer complained. “The horses might complain. Spencer Tracy is cast in his most distasteful role.” And in fact, Tracy’s character seems almost benign alongside his neighbor, played by Marjorie Rambeau, who shoots a would-be rapist and a police snitch with the line, “This ain’t murder, this is just house cleaning.”



Kent Jones corrects some misconceptions about Borzage in the comments on The Self-Styled Siren:

I would take issue with one item – Borzage’s “blatant, unabashed mystification of love.” One one level, I know exactly what you’re talking about. On the other hand, it would be nothing without his absolutely concrete approach to the process of falling in love. And that’s why I like his movies. If Man’s Castle, for instance, were a movie about sanctified lovers, it probably wouldn’t add up to much. But it’s about something quite unusual: a man who deludes himself into believing that he doesn’t love a woman because he wants to guard himself against hurt, and a woman who has to suffer the anxiety of seeing him play out his private drama during hard times.


You can read Jones’ impassioned Film Comment feature on Borzage here.


Time Out (London):

Borzage was responsible for some of the oddest Hollywood films of the ’30s, and few can be more bizarre than Man’s Castle, a heated Depression melodrama (from a play by Lawrence Hazard) with Tracy and Young as a pair of incurably optimistic lovers attempting to set up house together in shantytown. Their amoral romantic passion for each other is sufficient in Borzage’s eyes to justify theft, even murder.



David Cairns came around to Tracy based off this performance (and has a screen shot of his great stilt-walking scene!), at his blog Shadowplay:

Jo Swerling, author of several Frank Capra depression-era fantasias, penned this beautiful and strange Borzage masterwork. The similarities and differences are plain enough: like any piece of Capra-corn, this movie raises the spectre of the depression but sugar-coats it with hope. Unlike in Capra, though, the protagonists this time don’t end up materially better off. It’s a tale of survival and romance, rather than one of triumph over the odds in the capitalist game.


Arriving at another piece of studio artifice, the city’s New Deal shanty town, Spencer becomes swiftly nude and jumps in the river for a wash. Loretta follows, in a bit of pre-code spice. The pair presumably become lovers at this point. This is pretty surprising (they’ve just met) but in keeping with Borzage’s sexual sophistication. He’s a spiritual filmmaker, and his branch of spirituality is explicitly Christian, but he finds room for sexuality in his world-view. He’s like Prince, in that respect. There, I said it: Frank Borzage is like Prince. Only without the purple blouse.


This a truly great film. It takes a non-judgemental and intimate look at an unconventional relationship between two extraordinary people. Trina comes from nowhere — we don’t learn anything about her past. She’s just poor. Bill has obviously been around a bit, and may have a history with Flossie, the shantytown drunk. His way of showing affection to Trina is to insult and threaten her. This verges on the harsh, alright, but the way Loretta Young reacts shows that she fully understands that this is just his way of masking affection: it means “I love you.” There’s a risk that, accepting all this verbal abuse, Trina could seem like a doormat, but Loretta just GLOWS — she’s receiving compliments and expressions of love with every insult. It’s not masochism, it’s just an ability to read Bill’s true meaning. Trina comes into her own and emerges as the stronger, more mature character. Another beautiful and strange Borz ending — his characters don’t tend to get rich, they continue struggling, but the optimism comes through in Borzage’s core belief that love will make struggling worthwhile.



Jeremy Arnold dishes some dirt, for TCM:

Tracy and Young both made Man’s Castle as loanouts to Columbia Pictures. It was 33-year-old Tracy’s 19th film in three years; Young, all of 20, had already appeared in 50 movies (including a few as a child). The two stars fell in love during production, and indeed their chemistry on screen is undeniable. The problem with their real-life romance was that Tracy was married and both he and Young were Catholic. For him, that meant he wouldn’t divorce his wife; for her, it meant she was beset by guilt.


It didn’t help that Tracy had a drinking problem and was even arrested for public intoxication in September 1933, not long after Man’s Castle wrapped. The relationship was public knowledge and lasted about a year. Ultimately, Young broke it off in a heartfelt letter; he never mentioned it or called her back, and that was that. Two years later Young had a passionate romance with Clark Gable that resulted in the birth of an illegitimate daughter. In 1940 she married Tom Lewis. In 1993, at age 80, she married costume designer Jean Louis. She passed away in 2000.


Tracy, of course, eventually started a lifelong affair with Katharine Hepburn, but his deep affection for Young never faded. Decades later, after Tracy’s death, his daughter Susan found Young’s break-up letter in her father’s things. It was one of only three letters he had kept, and even though it was signed simply, “Me,” Susan knew it must have been from Young, considering how her father had talked about her over the years. She returned the letter to Young, who was touched beyond words. She had considered Tracy the great love of her life, and perhaps Tracy had felt the same way.



Alt Screen’s Dan Callahan for Slant:

Harsh-spirited, episodic, in a rage over the ghastly injustices of economic privation, Man’s Castle focuses on the insecurity of a man who belittles the woman that loves him and tries to run away from her every chance he gets. When they first meet, Bill (Spencer Tracy) is dressed up in a monkey suit with a flashing advertisement on his chest (he’s paid to walk back and forth) and Trina (Loretta Young) is starving and has been out of work for a year. Young truly looks like she’s hungry, just two big eyes staring out at the unjust world, too scared to sell her body and too scared to kill herself. But she finds strength in Bill’s toughness and righteous anger, and a moonlit skinny-dip swim cements their love carnally—water purifies in Borzage’s world, just as snow does in more desperate circumstances. When we next see Trina, she is washing Bill’s shirt. “Bill is particular. Everything that goes near his skin has to be clean,” she boasts. “I expect he’s the cleanest man in the world!” Trina marvels, one of the most truly erotic tributes to the sanctified flesh of a lover in film history.


But Bill is scared of his feelings for Trina, and he puts her down constantly. This is mitigated most of the time by Tracy’s obvious tenderness underneath his curt swagger, but their relationship has its ugly side. Trina is a slave to Bill (“Yes, sir!” she says, as he beams at her servitude). She is also a sexual commodity that he doesn’t want to lose, so that he’s always complaining, disingenuously but tiresomely, about her skinniness. The balance of power shifts between them in a lyrical scene where Bill realizes that the blue of the sky he cherishes through his skylight is also present in Trina’s eyes. Taking her chance, Trina climbs into bed with Bill and tells him that she’s pregnant, crying, “You’re a prisoner inside of me!”


Man’s Castle portrays their love as a kind of Oedipal push-and-pull, and Bill can only jump on so many freights before he comes back to this woman he needs to breathe. It makes him and us uncomfortable, but the end of Bill’s independence marks the beginning of what looks like his mature romantic security: the last shot has him giving up his tough-guy act, resting his head on Trina’s breast like a little boy. Borzage’s camera pulls up to view the woman’s gleaming white wedding dress, a symbol of unsullied purity in the hay of a boxcar, a refuge from the ravages of the Depression, a bit of womb-like peace amid the unrest of the film’s brassy Glenda Farrell showgirls and voyeuristic lechers.



Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:

Central Park pigeons, fluffy like swans, herald Frank Borzage’s vision of lower depths and heightened feelings: The camera pans up to find Spencer Tracy in top hat and tails, then right to reveal Loretta Young on the same bench, her famished peepers on the popcorn he’s feeding the birds. The striking play of realism and reverie continues in a ritzy restaurant, where “the unemployment situation” is broached with consequences for My Man Godfrey, and then out in the boulevard, with the couple posed in front of a blatant process shot (passersby smile at the lenses) in a proto-Syberberg effect. The gag is that the king is penniless, Tracy’s high-society robes are really a walking billboard (advertising for coffee lights up on his shirtfront), he doffs them and goes skinny-dipping with Young. “I expect he’s the cleanest man in the world!” she enthuses. A vast shantytown is the setting, both sanctuary and purgatory, a place of psalms and jibes (“plenty of running water, a whole river of it!”) and just the sort of studio recreation of vagabond emotional states Kurosawa would repeatedly strive for (One Wonderful Sunday, Dodes’ka-den). Other dwellers include the preacher-cum-night watchman (Walter Connolly), the lush next door (Marjorie Rambeau), and the envious scoundrel (Arthur Hohl), but the heart to Borzage is in the delicate tussle between Tracy’s guarded swagger and Young’s practical magic, he trying to bury tenderness under sarcasm, she slipping daintily through the rubble, hugging with her eyes. The danger and the need of “stepping out of your class,” the warmth of a stove and the volatility of a train whistle, all painted with a direct lyricism that, in moments like the carnival reunion between a humbled rooster and a pregnant waif or the safecracking operation interrupted by a wind-up toy, hews closer to Molnár than the director’s official version of Liliom. The camera’s lovely final ascension says: Look and you will find Botticellis and Fragonards on the hay-strewn floor of a boxcar, all you need are two lovers.



Ryland Walker Knight for MUBI:

A film made to witness the social blight of the Great Depression, released in that earliest and leanest period of the decade before FDR and his New Deal upturn, Frank Borzage’s Man’s Castle takes on characteristics of its male lead, a young Spencer Tracy, unspooling with patient bemusement and gruff shades of guile.


Although the film offers a pretty simple push-and-pull love story, its charitable optimism—typified by how Borzage smears the lens with light (to point beyond the frame, to point back at the world)—smoothes its frankness. In that first scene (where the city appears as a rear-projection), the swans do not just waddle at Tracy’s feet, their feathers’ blur bleeds around the little space, a set of beacons bobbing. This molding of the world continues: when not an obvious and limited back-lot set, the city scenes follow routine to show our “subjects” in front of a screened crowd, and never a part of the foot traffic flow; “moonlight” dances on the “Hudson” while the couple skinny dips, racing “to the moon” (a perfect overhead lamp); clouds and balloons laze past windows with weighty grain; a key-light haloes Young in close-up time and again; the whites do not burn the emulsion, as they may in a Von Sternberg film, but rather streak and daub to accent a space, a face, a scene. I’ve read characterizations of Borzage as inheriting a certain Romantic tradition, and this proves true in that the film sees the wonder in our natural world.

You may have guessed: while the film is ostensibly about the Great Depression, and the weight many citizens felt during its run, this is more milieu (a literal backdrop) than subject matter. No, Man’s Castle has simpler aims—a modest interest in love’s fight for itself. For Borzage, it would seem, love is basic—a form (or shifting forms, arrangements) of servitude. Thus, this story could easily be told in any of our 20th Century decades past—just as it could be told at our current moment.


– Compiled by Brynn White

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