Directed by: Frank Borzage.
Written by: Jo Swerling based on the play by Lawrence Hazard
Starring: Spencer Tracy (Bill), Loretta Young (Trina), Marjorie Rambeau (Flossie), Glenda Farrell (Fay La Rue), Walter Connolly (Ira), Arthur Hohl (Bragg), Dickie Moore (Joie).
Watching so called Pre-Code films today can be a somewhat odd experience. The Hay’s Code came into effect in 1930, but wasn’t really enforced until July of 1934. This meant for a few years, filmmakers could get away with a lot of things that they would not have been able to for years after the code started to be enforced. Frank Borzage’s 1933 film Man’s Castle is one of the best pre-code films.
The film stars Spencer Tracy as Bill, who we first meet on a park bench in New York, wearing a tuxedo. This is where he meets Trina (Loretta Young), a young woman, crying because she has no money, no food and nowhere to sleep. After inquiring as to if she has considering becoming a prostitute (“Oh no, I couldn’t do that”) or throwing herself into the river (“I’ve thought about it”) – although never, of course, using the words, Bill whisks her away to a fancy restaurant. Judging on his clothes and the restaurant he chooses, Trina understandably thinks Bill is rich – but after the meal when he calls the manager over, he informs him that she has no money, and “neither do I”, and then begins to give a speech about 12 million men out of work, before the manager shoos them from the restaurant, telling them they don’t have to pay. That tuxedo, it turns out, is just a demeaning uniform for one of the odd jobs Bill has. Bill brings her back to a shanty town along the Hudson River he sleeps in – and after some late night skinning dipping, the two of them shack up together.
Man’s Castle is a strange film indeed. The film is undeniably about the Great Depression, even if the words themselves are never used, the film certainly doesn’t shy away from the mass of poor people America had at the time. And the film is also very frank about the sexual relationship between the unmarried Bill and Trina – she even gets pregnant! – and Bill’s attitude about sex (as Trina washes and irons one of his shirts she says “He doesn’t like anything touching his skin that isn’t clean”) – although this doesn’t stop him from pursuing Fay (Glenda Farrell), who in the parlance of the day could be described as a “good time girl” (in a review I read, they used the term “easy lay”, and that’s pretty accurate as well). Bill hates himself a little for soiling Trina – trying to push her constantly, by reminding her they he isn’t going to “tied down”, and insulting her for being “too skinny to be a real woman”. Trina stays though – she loves him too much to leave – and even builds a little sun roof for him, so when he gets claustrophobic in their shack, and wants to see the great outdoors, he can gaze out into the sky – the very sky that will eventually lead him to realize he does love Trina, when the blue of the sky reminds him or her eyes.
It’s moments like that, that make Man’s Castle so strange – because while on one hand, it is a film about the Great Depression and sex, the film takes the form of a fairy tale in many ways. Borzage has often been called a romanticist (having not seen any of his other films, I cannot say if that’s true or not), but he shoots much of Man’s Castle in soft focus, which certainly makes the film feel more like a fairy tale, than a hard-hitting, “realistic” film. Despite the fact that Tracy’s Bill outwardly seems hard and cynical, Tracy doesn’t deliver his dialogue in a cruel way as he easily could have, if he wanted us to hate Bill. You like Bill almost because he can be a little cruel. And Loretta Young delivers one of her best performances as Trina – who at first seems rather one dimensional – a little too chipper and perky and naïve to be believed. But as the movie goes along, Young shows her strength – she is the stronger of the two characters, the one who has to do all the heavy lifting in their relationship.
The movie, of course, needs to add in more plot than it really needs. This basically revolves around three other residents of the shanty town – the drunken Flossie (who doesn’t seem to serve much of a purpose until her final scene), the lecherous Bragg, who leers at Trina when she goes skinny dipping, and finds one excuse after another to try and get her alone, and Ira, a former minister who gives Bill a bible and tries to do the right thing. You know Bragg is up to no good well before he suggests a crime – that will bring the movie to its climax.
Man’s Castle is a great Pre-code film. The performances by Tracy and Young are both top notch, and the supporting performances get the job done. The film combines its realistic and fairy tales elements far better than I would have thought possible. The film isn’t as well-known as many other pre-code films (like the infamous Baby Face with Barbara Stanwyck sleeping her way to the top), but it’s better than most, because it is not simply using the elements that they wouldn’t get away with later for shock value, but to deliver a fascinating story. Track this one down – it’s worth it.