‘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).

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