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Man’s Castle

by Glenn Erickson Jun 15, 2024

Old-school Hollywood romance is back in force. This pre-Code dazzler by Frank Borzage is one of the best, emotionally valid despite its dated gender assumptions. The innocent Loretta Young adores Spencer Tracy’s charming lout — their meet-cute finds them homeless and helpless in a Manhattan shanty town at the bottom of the Depression. The new disc recovers several minutes censored by the Production Code, restoring risqué content not seen since 1934.


Man’s Castle
Blu-ray
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
1933 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 78 69 min. / Street Date May 21, 2024 / Available from Moviezyng / 26.99
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Loretta Young, Marjorie Rambeau, Glenda Farrell, Walter Connolly, Arthur Hohl, Dickie Moore, Helen Jerome Eddy.
Cinematography: Joseph August
Art Director: Stephen Goosson
Costume Design: Robert Kalloch
Film Editor: Viola Lawrence
Original Music: Frank Harling
Screenplay by Jo Swerling from a play by Lawrence Hazard
Produced and Directed by
Frank Borzage

Only fans of vintage film know the special aura that surrounds some of the features of director Frank Borzage, romantic tales that believe in the transformative power of love. Hollywood pioneer Borzage got his start almost as early as D.W. Griffith, and some say his silent films were his best, like the award-winning 7th Heaven with Janet Gaynor. Much of Borzage’s sound-era output is studio busy work, but his peers were floored by masterpieces like  History is Made at Night, a delirious romance that concludes in a ‘Titanic’- like maritime disaster. Borzage’s pre-Code output includes the classic Hemingway adaptation  A Farewell to Arms and the deceptively titled  Bad Girl, starring Sally Eilers.

We’ve long had a soft spot for Borzage’s 1933 Man’s Castle. When Code enforcement arrived in ’34 it was shelved as immorally unacceptable. Five years later, a reissue was desired to exploit star Spencer Tracy’s two consecutive Best Actor Oscar wins. To obtain Code approval, major surgery shortened the film by several minutes. From that point forward the mutilated version was all that existed. When screened on TCM, rough continuity and awkward splices showed where scenes had been removed. The ‘offensive’ content has just recently been restored.

The show had two reported working titles, ‘Hunk O’Blue,’ and ‘A Man’s Castle.’  Source playwright Lawrence Hazard worked with Borzage several times, most notably on the weird religious parable  Strange Cargo starring Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. Screenwriter Jo Swerling was considered one of the best in the business, with credits on several hits by Frank Capra, and films as diverse as  The Whole Town’s Talking,  Lifeboat and  Leave Her to Heaven. A plain synopsis makes Man’s Castle read like a grim ‘Lower Depths’ tale of Depression Woe. Borzage and Swerling set their intensely romantic vision of love in New York, when thousands are out of work and homeless.

 

Penniless Bill and Trina (Spencer Tracy & Loretta Young) meet on a park bench. He’s wearing a tuxedo as part of his job as a streetwalking coffee advertisement, and uses it to con a restaurant out of a meal. Learning that Trina has nowhere to go, the self-confident Bill takes her to a homeless shanty town on the river. Thoroughly charmed, Trina meets the kindly ex-minister Ira (Walter Connolly of  It Happened One Night), and finds herself joining Bill in a naked midnight swim. The two set up housekeeping in a shack of their own, but Bill continually reminds Trina that he won’t be around long — train whistles remind him that he needs to be on the move.

Homeless neighbor Bragg (Arthur Hohl of  Island of Lost Souls) lusts after Trina, and harangues the unemployed with communist speeches. Bill takes other temporary work, and meets successful musical attraction Fay La Rue (Glenda Farrell of  Mystery of the Wax Museum) while serving a summons. Fay wants Bill to be her consort on a European tour, but Bill’s independent streak is too strong. Just when he’s feeling hemmed in by both women, an announcement by Trina motivates him to go in with Bragg on a robbery. He wants the money so he can abandon Trina ‘with a clean conscience.’

“When you’re dead you get a hunk of earth. When you’re alive, you want to hang on to your hunk of blue.”

Man’s Castle is a fairy tale made of the dreams of the dispossessed. Borzage’s romantic fantasy shows the couple living on next to nothing. Trina yearns for a decent cooking stove; Bill’s effort to get her one is his sole concession to commitment. Trina fears the train whistles that cue his wanderlust. A sliding part of the shack roof allows Bill to sleep under the stars. The slice of clouds seen through the opening is his ‘hunk of blue,’ a dream of escape. The cutaways to the skylight view reminds us of a similarly unattainable ‘narrow piece of sky’ motif visualized in George Stevens’  The Diary of Anne Frank. Bill so values his freedom, he can’t appreciate the little Paradise Trina has built for him.

The movie’s view of homelessness in the Great Depression is anything but realistic. Hobo villages and Hoovervilles in 1932 surely had plenty of the squalor and abject misery of today’s homeless encampments. Bill’s little homestead doesn’t even have rats; Trina says she feels safe and secure there. Threee years later, Gregory La Cava’s Code-approved  My Man Godfrey presented an identical shanty town as a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstrings recovery fantasy — by private enterprise, not the National Recovery Act.

Loretta Young’s Trina is a castaway with no past and no identity … Bill refers to her as ‘Whoosis.’ Trina is the most beautiful vagrant imaginable, and it takes some effort for us to believe she’d accept Bill’s assessment that she’s only minimally attractive. She wears a plain smock through most of the show, even though we first see her in a decent outfit. Wherever Trina came from, the only thing she asks for is a decent stove … on which to cook meals that Bill can criticize. That doesn’t matter to Trina, who seems pre-programmed as an adoring wife and homemaker. She says she’s just like that song that goes “fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly.”

Man’s Castle reduces complex relationships to basic emotions, but it said things that much of its audience wanted desperately to believe. There is hope for the future. I have value.

Today this would just be considered Abuse.

Spencer Tracy’s Bill is a certain ideal of masculinity under pressure. Powerless and destitute, Bill softens his arrogance with natural charm. He needs companionship as much as the next guy, but disguises his insecurity with constant misogynistic patter. Trina is the subject of his offhand criticims, belittling remarks and even vague threats, as he pretends he’s an unfeeling bruiser: “Shut up or I’ll pour that stew down your back.”  The nod to romantic fantasy lets Trina intuit that he’s a sweetheart inside, convinced he’s a failure and trying to dodge real responsibilities. The more adoring Trina gets, the more Bill restates that he’s his own man, he won’t be tied down, he might leave at any time. He’s more than a little bit like Michael Caine’s  Alfie, who also benefits from no-commitment girlfriends, while enjoying a glamour girl on the side.

Bill is also given no real personal history. Is he fibbing when he says he’s never had a job?  Despite the lack of hard realism Man’s Castle rings true about some aspects of life in the Depression. This isn’t the social horror show of Warners’ pre-Code  Heroes for Sale, from the same year and also starring Loretta Young. But there must have been a million Americans of all ages in 1933 unwilling or unable to commit to relationships, marriages or children out of fear for the future. Man’s Castle offers a feel-good message that love conquers all, and backs up its emotionalism with compelling sincerity.

The prevailing ‘masculine ideal’ accepts but does not defend Bill’s tomcat ‘freedom.’   Even Trina intuits that Bill doesn’t consider their relationship exclusive. She repeatedly says she has no claim on him, which makes this a prime candidate for romantic fairy tale of the year. We assume that Bill is sleeping with Glenda Farrell’s glamorous Fay La Rue, who sweetens the deal with a trip to Europe. But he doesn’t want to dance to Fay’s tune either.

 

Why not a tale about romantic purity in a shanty town?

Bill insists that the best people are to be found in homeless encampments. Walter Connolly’s neigbor Ira is the original Good Samaritan. Several Bible passages are read out loud, and the characters even ask each other if they believe. The Production Code would later impose a rigid moral code on faith, insisting that good characters respect Belief, and that villains be inherently evil.

The mildly anarchic Man’s Castle instead suggests that Hard Times causes people to find their own rules and their own morality. Trina is sold on Bill almost from the get-go. Astonished by his behavior in the restaurant, she follows him from that moment on. We wonder what the reaction was in 1933 to their impromptu skinny dip in the East River. No formal vows or church ceremony here: a few seconds later Trina is Bill’s committed companion, keeping shack house and married in body if not on paper. The film’s eroticism is as direct as in the previous year’s  Tarzan and His Mate.  In pre-Code terms, when the right guy comes along, Anything Goes.

Tracy and Young have individual charm to spare; when together they have chemistry to burn. Tracy is more appealing here than in his Oscar-winning ‘prestige’ roles. Man’s Castle is all about Living In Sin, yet it’s morally superior to MGM’s dishonest, pandering  Boys Town. The screenplay eventually lets Loretta Young’s Trina take charge. When Bill’s fraudulent bluff finally breaks down, she offers a feminine re-definition of love and responsibility between lovers. Sure, Trina’s only ambition is to be ‘The Little Woman,’ a sentiment that might enrage today’s politicos. But for emotional honesty the relationship politics here connect strongly with the dreams of ordinary people.

Contrasting with Bill and Trina are a crippled version of ‘The Mertzes,’ Arthur Hohl’s loathsome Bragg and Marjorie Rambeau’s alcoholic Flossie. Bragg is a total heel, present to make unwanted overtures to Trina, and to set up the criminal jeopardy in the third act. Ms. Rambeau’s performance is truly accomplished — the broken-down Flossie is never a joke.    Her emotional breakthrough with Trina feels utterly genuine, and not a ploy for sentimental approval. Also, Flossie is one of those wonderfully liberated pre-Code women that commit 100% premeditated murder, yet are not seen to be punished.

Ms. Rambeau created another memorable characterization in Gregory La Cava’s  Primrose Path, opposite Ginger Rogers. Her alcoholic Flossie reminds us very much of Susan Tyrell’s boozy, vocally-impaired Oma in John Huston’s 1972  Fat City.

Curiously, the actress Helen Jerome Eddy receives a big credit on the film’s posters, but goes uncredited in the film itself. She reportedly plays ‘mother’ … Did I miss the character, or were her scenes removed?

 

And it’s funny, too.

The movie has a real sense of humor. Spencer Tracy nails his future ‘casual, I’m not acting here’ star persona. He talks his way out of a police charge for swiping a free meal from a restaurateur, as if it’s his God-given right. His stilt-walking scene is an amusing stretch; we would guess that a circus pro doubling for Tracy, with an overhead wire assist. Bill gets to peep in second-story windows, and charm moppet Dickie Moore.

The Tracy charm is felt when Bill allows himself to be dressed-down by a little kid while playing baseball in an empty lot. Expelled from the game, he smiles at the kid’s Moxie. A Tracy line delivery or two also evoke the cadence of W.C. Fields. In her stage performance, Glenda Farrell’s Fay La Rue struts before the footlights just as might Mae West. Is it possible that the whole act is based on the famous Ms. West?  Fay keeps a trio of beefy bodyguards on her payroll, and maybe not only to repel summons servers.

Were the Hollywood trades’ reviewers anticipating the ‘new morality’ of the coming Production Code enforcement?  The Variety review treats the entire show as unclean and distasteful, deploring the sordid setting and calling Tracy’s character a worthless mug. Frank Borzage’s peers felt as we do, that Man’s Castle was something very special. Peter von Bagh’s recent quote relates the film’s magic to Borzage’s silent-era reputation as a master of romance:  “In Borzage’s cinema, mastery of the intimate gesture, peculiar to the most beautiful silent films, lived on.”

 


 

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray of  Man’s Castle is a beautifully remastered restoration. The luminous image shows the enormous, forced-perspective indoor Shanty Town set, that includes a miniature bridge and railroad train. Many shots with Ms. Young use softening filters. A rear projection plate for a sidewalk scene was clearly meant for a close-up, as some of the figures behind Spencer Tracy make him look like a midget.

Sony’s plain-wrap presentation has chapters and English subs, but no menu. Listings for the original running time all read 75 minutes, but the disc encoding is close to 78.5 minutes, without any extra content at either end. The packaging doesn’t mention that the disc contains a major restoration.

Sony Pictures hasn’t been releasing a lot of vintage restorations lately, which makes this new Blu-ray of Man’s Castle all the more encouraging. The movie has been ‘re-premiered’ at several festivals and at this year’s TCMfest, at which a Sony rep divulged the story of what the restoration entailed.

 

The studio found three copies of the film, at the Library of Congress and at the BFI in London; all were shortened versions but not censored the same way. The final word was that almost all the original footage was recovered. Is it possible that the restored feature is 2 minutes longer than its premiere cut, because the UK release contained additional exclusive material?

Columbia’s 1938 censor job didn’t just drop whole scenes. Shots and dialogue were deleted all through the movie to eliminate or obscure references to prostitution and the inference of sex outside wedlock. A woman’s dialogue about being paid for her company had to go, and also Bill’s remark to Trina that “A woman should stick out here and there.”  But also trimmed were comments about the homeless shanty town, and part of a political harangue to the down-and-outs.

Much of Glenda Farrell’s Fay La Rue was dropped from the 1938 reissue cut. Viewers also report that the re-cut carries a new title sequence. Most notably, a marriage scene in the third act was shifted all the way to near the beginning, to counter Bill and Trina’s flagrant unmarried cohabitation. We’re told that the deletion of a gunshot sound effect made an implied murder-suicide into a less-offensive single murder, but only one gunshot is heard on this restored version.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Man’s Castle
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
June 12, 2024
(7140mans)
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Text © Copyright 2024 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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