Saturday, April 30, 2011

Tracy, Young Shine in 'Man's Castle'

“Man’s Castle” is an enjoyable Depression-era romance with Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young.

It’s directed by Frank Borzage, who had a knack for telling romantic stories with such warmth and heart. In fact, there are times when “Man’s Castle” reminded me of his 1927 monster hit “Seventh Heaven.”

It also gives Tracy a great early role and Young a lovely heroine. Even though the film sometimes teeters toward ridiculousness, Borzage and his two stars manage to reel it back to its effective emotional core.

Released in 1933 and set during the depression in Manhattan, the story begins with Bill (Tracy), dressed in a tuxedo and feeding the pigeons from a park bench, much to the chagrin of Trina (Young), who happens to be on the other side of the same bench. She hasn’t eaten in days, and she looks at the food with longing and at Bill with disgust.

Bill doesn’t believe she’s that hungry until he sees it in her eyes. So he decides to treat Trina to dinner at a fine restaurant, one that she’s sorely underdressed for, and watches her devour a full meal. She’s thankful for his kindness – until he reveals that he has no money, either. Yet he ingeniously gets them thrown out of the establishment with nothing more than a reprimand.

With no place to live, Trina accompanies Bill to his residence – which is actually nothing more than a patch of ground in a shantytown by the river. Although he hates the permanency of having a roof over his head, Bill manage to build a home with an adoring Trina in the shantytown under the watchful eye of such neighbors as Flossie (Marjorie Rambeau) and Ira (Walter Connelly).

Bill works odd jobs to earn just enough money to get by. He doesn’t want to be tied down and continually tells Trina that he could leave at any time. He gets caught up with Fay La Rue (Glenda Farrell), a nightclub singer who has an eye for the gruff but charming Bill.

Then there’s Bragg (Arthur Hohl), the shantytown jerk who’s always eyeing Trina and trying to lure Bill into illegal schemes.

The setup to “Man’s Castle” is nearly exact to “Seventh Heaven,” in which Charles Farrell plays a sewer worker who saves Janet Gaynor from the street, taking her into his modest apartment. They embark on a simple romance, but instead of Farrell being restless, he’s drafted into World War I.

I didn’t mind the similarities, though, because “Castle” had its own distinctive flavor and star power.

Some of the lines in “Man’s Castle” can be a bit difficult to take, and the settings and costumes aren’t grubby enough to be believable. Trina utters “How wonderful” when shown the nowhere near grubby-enough shantytown as if she’s seeing a four-star hotel. Her down-and-out wardrobe and hair may be simple and yet is rather chic. It’s as if poverty is nothing more than a nuisance that can be easily managed if you can accept it.

Sometimes the movie can be jarring, jumping from one scene or image to another without explanation, which I hope was simply the print I was watching. Also, Fay La Rue makes several appearances in what seems to be a secondary storyline but then suddenly vanishes without a trace.

Yet it all works for several reasons. Its simplicity is an asset – at heart, this is a love story, and Borzage makes sure this is what drives the film. Borzage also understands restraint. I love how scenes play out between Bill and Trina. Bill can be blustery, but Borzage finds the tenderness between the two.

The story is fairly adult and was released before the Production Code was fully enforced. Bill and Trina clearly are lovers without being married, yet again Borzage weaves this into the story rather than play up the lurid aspects.

Finally, the two stars are marvelously appealing. Tracy, having started in film just a few years earlier, already shows that wondrous talent he possessed. His natural ease works wonders. Most other actor would not have carried off Bill’s cynicism and gruffness, which would have turned audiences off and left them hoping Trina would wise up. But Tracy knew just how far to push the harsher traits of Bill before pulling back, and he wasn’t afraid to dig into Bill’s softer side, even if it was quickly buried under his bluster.

I find it interesting that Young is 13 years younger than Tracy yet had three more years of experience in front of the camera! She isn’t quite on par with him as an actress yet, but that’s not meant as a criticism of her performance here. She really is lovely as Trina. Frankly, I didn’t think her character, as written, had much to do except profess her love for Bill every 10 minutes. But the 20-year-old Young does it softly. She’s never shrill or histrionic, and it’s a fine compliment to Tracy.

In the end, “Man’s Castle” does a nearly impossible job well. The ending may be too pat, but this simple tale doesn’t need much else. Add in the engaging performances from the leads and Borzage’s heartwarming touch and it’s a film worth watching.


  1. Cfb,
    I always look forward to your well thought out and honest reviews and this one didn't disappoint!

    Two cheers for pre-code films.

  2. Thank you Page. Glad you enjoyed it, and yes, two cheers for pre-code films!

  3. Great review - I agree with you that Tracy and Young are both excellent in this pre-Code, and also agree that it is a highly romanticised view of poverty. After that opening scene, which for me is the strongest in the film, there is never really a feeling that hunger is a problem - and, as you say, the shanty town isn't nearly grubby enough. But I really like the film all the same and feel the tenderness between the couple is well brought out.

    On the jumps between scenes, I've seen a suggestion somewhere that some footage may have been cut out somewhere along the line, possibly some more scenes between Farrell and Tracy. It would be good to see a proper release of this one on DVD.

  4. Hi Judy: Glad you liked the review. I'll have to search out a DVD copy to see if that's the case. I watched the film on Turner Classics, so I was trusting that they would have the most current version of the film available.

  5. Sorry, I meant that footage may have been cut out many years ago - I'm sure the TCM version is indeed the most current one. Sadly I believe there isn't a DVD of this title, though I'm hoping it may get a release in the future!

  6. I hope so! It deserves to be seen more.

  7. CFB, this is a Tracy movie I have not seen. I love pre-code movies, and will seek this one out. You just have to love the name of Glenda Farrell's character -- Fay La Rue. If that isn't a stripper name, I don't know what is!

    It is always amazing how really good actors and directors can take a flawed story and make a decent movie out of it.

    Like Page, I always look forward to your wonderful posts. Keep 'em coming!

  8. Thank you, Becky. Isn't that name great? Yes, seek this one out and let me know if you see it.

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  10. I haven't seen this movie and really wasn't aware of it until recently. I'd been doing research on Spencer Tracy for a blog. "Man's Castle" was mentioned in the bios I read more for its role in Tracy's personal life than its own merits. Apparently he and Young became involved and this was the original reason Tracy and his wife separated. Katharine Hepburn fans can breath a sigh of relief that Kate was no homewrecker. Gossip and irony aside, this sounds like an entertaining film - and an interesting opportunity to watch Tracy and Young early in their movie careers.

  11. Hi Eve, thanks for the comments. Didn't know about Tracy and Young; I'm looking for a good Spencer Tracy biography. Any suggestions? Let me know if you catch this film. Would enjoy hearing your take on it.