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Man's Castle (1933) may on the surface be a simple story of a down-on-their-luck couple finding love amid the Great Depression, but it's also a remarkable gem from the all-time great romantic director Frank Borzage, and it features unforgettable turns by Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young. It's one of many movies made in the '30s that acknowledges the dire economic straits of the era, and in this case it provides escape from harsh reality through transcendental love. How romantic for a movie to suggest that true love could lift a couple of ordinary souls out of something as devastating as the Depression.
Tuxedo-clad Bill (Spencer Tracy) meets Trina (Loretta Young) on a New York park bench, and he takes her to dinner at a posh restaurant even though he has no money. He is wearing the tux, we discover, because it has an advertisement that lights up on the chest; Bill earns a couple of bucks a day just by walking around and flashing the ad. He lives in a Hooverville shanty and takes Trina in, and they soon fall in love. She cooks and cleans for him while he takes on odd jobs like walking on stilts (another advertising gig), serving court summons and the like. Bill is an intriguingly complex character. He treats Trina quite harshly, but Spencer Tracy's performance allows us to see that underneath the gruff exterior he is sensitive and even fearful. Trina is innocent almost to the point of naivete, but the fact that she sticks with Bill shows that she is able to see his true, loving nature. In this sense, she is actually the stronger of the two. Young is incredibly beautiful here, but also delivers a touching, beautifully nuanced performance.
The word "Depression" is never uttered in Man's Castle, but it is there, front and center. There are other residents of the Hooverville, and through them and our main couple we get a strong taste of what life must have felt like. There's also a comedic '30s flavor to this episodic movie, as in a scene where Bill plays baseball with a bunch of kids. Watching Spencer Tracy get chewed out by a pint-sized Little Leaguer is a sight to behold. More memorable, however, are images like the masterful scene of Bill presenting Trina with a new stove, something she has longed for. Her reaction is incredibly touching, and then his reaction at seeing her reaction is even more so. Whoever thought that a stove could come across as so romantic?
Well, Frank Borzage, for one. The director (whose name is pronounced "Bor-ZAY-gee" with a hard "g") was a veteran from far back in the silent era, and the coming of sound did not diminish his gifts for creating unusually strong romantic emotions on screen. Quality acting and writing (in this case by Capra regular Jo Swerling) were mandatory, of course, but Borzage's subtle innovations in framing, lighting and editing create an emotional tapestry. His visual approach often consisted of somehow isolating his lovers in the frame from the world around them - through soft focus and other means - thereby generating an intensity of romance and longing which few other filmmakers have ever realized.
Frederick Lamster, author of a book on Borzage's career, wrote about this concept as it applies to the movie's early restaurant scene: "They are in the frame together, the rest of the crowd being blurred, indistinct, and unimportant... It is only when the two must face the consequence of their action - Bill cannot pay for the meal and must explain his plight - that the crowd comes into focus and the couple's world is recognized as being part of the larger world."
Film critic Andrew Sarris has written of Borzage's films that "Borzage never needed dream worlds for his suspensions of disbelief. He plunged into the real world of poverty and oppression, the world of Roosevelt and Hitler, the New Deal and the New Order, to impart an aura to his characters, not merely through soft focus and a fluid camera, but through a genuine concern with the wondrous inner life of lovers in the midst of adversity."
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 worlds. She had considered Tracy the great love of her life, and perhaps Tracy had felt the same way.
Also in the cast of Man's Castle are Glenda Farrell in a strong turn as a showgirl who takes an interest in Bill, Walter Connolly as a Hooverville resident, and 8-year-old Dickie Moore, making his 45th film! Borzage directed Tracy in three other pictures: Young America (1932), Big City (1937) and Mannequin (1937). Tracy and Young recreated their Man's Castle characters for a 1939 Lux Radio Theatre broadcast.
Man's Castle could not have been made as-is a year later, when the Production Code began to be enforced. Among the "sins" on display here are unmarried cohabitation and pregnancy, a killer not being taken into custody, and, in some prints, a brief nude shot of Spencer Tracy jumping into a river.
Director: Frank Borzage
Screenplay: Jo Swerling; Lawrence Hazard (play)
Cinematography: Joseph August
Art Direction: Stephen Goosson (uncredited)
Music: Frank Harling
Film Editing: Viola Lawrence
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Bill), Loretta Young (Trina), Marjorie Rambeau (Flossie), Glenda Farrell (Fay La Rue), Walter Connolly (Ira), Arthur Hohl (Bragg), Dickie Moore (Joey).
by Jeremy Arnold
James Fisher, Spencer Tracy: A Bio-Bibliography
Frederick Lamster, Souls Made Great Through Love and Adversity: The Film Work of Frank Borzage
Judy Lewis, Uncommon Knowledge
Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema
Joan Wester Anderson, Forever Young