Although most of Frank Borzage’s best films finally saw release with the 2008 box set, Man’s Castle somehow didn’t make the cut. It’s a shame, as it’s his best film outside of his multiple silent masterpieces made with Janet Gaynor and Charles Ferrell. Man’s Castle again rekindles a kind of street-wise and jaded yet sentimental quality to the love stories he pioneered in the 1920’s, like 7th Heaven, Street Angel and Lucky Star, and then continued into the 1930’s with his near masterpiece talkie, Liliom. Borzage is rarely written about these days, and if he is, it’s amongst the blogosphere almost exclusively, and even in that realm it’s hard to come by. Borzage, above any other director who’s ever lived, seemed to elevate romance into the spiritual realm, almost turning the transformative power of love into a religion, believing that if one is honest enough, kind enough, and loving enough, one can overcome just about any odds. No other director has ever conveyed with such unflinching, sincere regard, the belief that love can conquer all and inspire lovers to go beyond what they thought was imaginable.
In the case of Man’s Castle, we consider two souls, Bill (Spencer Tracy) and Trina (Loretta Young) as they sit on a park bench. He feeds the pigeons popcorn, while wearing a fancy suit. She eyes the popcorn with a hungry eye as she is obviously out of work, while he is seemingly rich and throwing food away. The content dabbles into typical pre-codisms, with Bill alluding to the fact that women shouldn’t be out of work (even in the depression) especially with the looks of a woman like Trina. Bill then takes her to dinner, where this film also sets up a sort of teacher/protege kind of relationship, a la, Pygmalion. Borzage brilliantly sets up the film positioning Bill as a rich man, until Bill reveals that his suit is a prop (an advertisement for a coffee house), and then brings Trina (Loretta Young) home to his shanty-town house, proving he's nearly as poor as she is and giving new definition to the term Man’s Castle. Touchingly, the film connects our two down-on-their-luck lovers ending their first evening together by skinny dipping in a river, equalizing their plight, stripping themselves bare and plunging into their relationship on equal terms. Amazingly, the film positions them as living together and joining into a sort of ragged union, rising above categorization because convenience doesn’t make time for such formalities. Their tender relationship is threatened when Trina becomes pregnant, forcing Bill to confront his sense of commitment to Trina and the life that he is aching to give her despite their hardships.
It’s hard to view this film with the right context under which it was meant to be seen. Most of us never experienced the Great Depression, and instead only understand it through the eyes of generations past, who’ve told tales to subsequent generations, or through books or movies. But honestly, it might be cinema that will most easily convey the Depression for future generations. Films like Man’s Castle, My Man Godfrey, The Grapes of Wrath…..these each convey a certain element of the times and a point of view that was, if not necessarily popular back then (it is reported that Man’s Castle did poorly at the box office), are great cultural examples of the time. For all the falsity that cinema often presents, these are the closest things to a living/breathing time capsule as we’ll ever have. Though Borzage can of course be accused of relying too much on sentiment regarding this topic (and indeed throughout his career), it is far too simplistic to label him as taking advantage of the situation. The fact is, many great directors honed their use of sentiment for great effect, including Chaplin, Ford, and Spielberg among others. What separates the good from the bad, is the sincerity of belief in the power of goodness and love at the heart of the sentiment. Borzage here utilizes the difficulties and trials of surviving during the Great Depression in order to reflect upon the resilience of romantic love and the courage to do the right thing under those circumstances. This scenario actually takes a genre that is sometimes stuck in the clouds and then blends in a kind of kitchen-sink realism that gives the film (and many of Borzage’s films) a superbly balanced romantic tone.
One thing I’ve always had an issue with regarding certain pre-code films (this one notwithstanding) is an unenlightened, seemingly sexist view towards women. I don’t particularly take well to the attitude that Tracy’s character delivers to Young, what with the “Come here” and “Hey stupid” kind of lines he throws at her, even if it is in jest. I’m not even sure this attitude matches well with Tracy’s acting style per se. However, there’s an alternate reading to this in that Bill’s ultra-macho attitude is partly a distancing technique, perhaps so that he and/or she will refuse to connect too deeply to the other. Borzage inserts a slightly overstated subplot that doesn't quite resonate as Tracy begins seeing a floozy on the side. It's almost like he’s trying a little too hard to keep the upper hand to avoid getting hurt but it comes across as a bit far fetched. However, most of the film is filled with beautifully wrought romantic longing and touching scenes. There’s this beautiful moment when Bill and Trina attempt to sit down for dinner and the blaring train whistle nearby seems to pierce right into Bill’s brain, almost causing his façade to crack, as he knows he's not providing the right environment for Trina's needs. The film is also remarkably progressive when it comes to the co-habitating relationship, complete with sex, but sans marriage in all its pre-codi-ness. Starting in 1934, this film would never have seen the light of day due to these elements. In fact, the film was re-released in 1938 with the studio being forced to cut out 9 full minutes, which have not been fully recovered since. It’s a shame we have lost some of this footage, as it’s hard to simply get enough of Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young and their chemistry together onscreen, as they are lovely and tender and sincere as anything else you will see from this era.