Home Lifestyle ‘Man’s Castle’: Free Love, Hard Times

‘Man’s Castle’: Free Love, Hard Times

‘Man’s Castle’: Free Love, Hard Times


A celebrant of redemptive love, Frank Borzage (1893-1962) was the most romantic of classic Hollywood directors and, however unconventionally, perhaps the most religious as well. “Man’s Castle” (1933) conflates an economic crisis — namely the Great Depression — with a spiritual one. The movie also represents premarital pregnancy as salvation rather than sin, and scenes were consequently cut for its post-Production Code rerelease in the late 1930s.

Restored to its original length of 78 minutes, screening at the Museum of Modern Art (April 18-24), “Man’s Castle” feels unique — at once surprisingly frank and disquietingly coy.

A leading director of silent films, Borzage (Bor-ZAY-ghee) left the Fox studio and went independent in 1932. His first production was an adaptation of Hemingway’s World War I novel “A Farewell to Arms.” “Man’s Castle” also concerns love in extremis with the starving innocent Trina (20-year-old Loretta Young) falling for and shacking up with an older if equally indigent man of the world, Bill (Spencer Tracy).

Their meet-cute on a park bench, with Bill feeding the pigeons as ravenous Trina looks longingly on, proceeds to a nice restaurant (where Bill gets out of paying the check) and winds up back at his jerry-built hovel in a homeless encampment near the East River. A natural man, Bill amazes Trina (and possibly the viewer) by diving naked into the water. She more discreetly follows. Cut from Edenic skinny-dipping to radiant Trina at the washboard happily scrubbing Bill’s clothes.

A brash roughneck with a golden heart, Bill inspires Trina’s puppy-like devotion. In his New York Times review, Mordaunt Hall praised the stars’ “thoroughly efficient portrayals” — an odd choice of words to describe their evident mutual attraction. Indeed, the chemistry was real. Young’s daughter would later detail the pair’s guilt-ridden love affair. (Both were Catholic; Tracy was married.)

For Trina, Bill’s Hooverville home is “heaven,” with various down-and-out denizens adding to the allegorical flavor. Bragg (Arthur Hohl) is not only a lech and a thief but a leftist loudmouth. His alcoholic companion, Flossie (Marjorie Rambeau), is both a fallen woman and a salvation project tended to by a former minister (Walter Connolly). Dismissive of all three, the cynical Bill is tempted by the fun-loving cabaret star Fay La Rue (a reliably sassy Glenda Farrell, here mimicking Mae West).

Topical yet timeless, “Man’s Castle” sets its characters in the world of popular culture. A theater marquee glimpsed when Trina and Bill first meet advertises George Raft and Sylvia Sidney in the movie “Pick Up” (1933). Bill’s kiss-off missive to Faye is a word cut out from a piece of sheet music. Trina explains herself by citing a song from “Show Boat.” At the same time, the movie evokes scripture — the Song of Songs and tale of the Nativity — ending as Trina and Bill hit the road with intimations of a December birth, perhaps even in a manger.

MoMA is showing “Man’s Castle” in conjunction with four other Borzage restorations — the misleadingly titled “Bad Girl” (1931), the antiwar “No Greater Glory” (1934), the genre-mixing “History is Made at Night” (1937) and the late-career “Moonrise” (1949), a low-budget hillbilly noir later championed by auteurist critics. When this “glorious opportunity” to make a complex, guilt-shadowed redemptive love story presented itself, the critic Andrew Sarris would write, “Borzage was not stale or jaded.” Neither is “Man’s Castle.”

Man’s Castle

Through April 24 at the Museum of Modern Art, Manhattan; moma.org.


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