MAN'S CASTLE (Columbia, 1933), directed by Frank Borzage, is not so much about a British king and his royal subjects, but a Depression-era story of survival and one man who's castle happens to be the great outdoors in a shanty community. Starring future Academy Award winners Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young in their only pairing together, and direction by two-time award winning Borzage, it's very much pre-code movie with enough material not commonly found in motion pictures after the production code was fully enforced by 1934.
Set in New York City, the story opens in Central Park where Bill (Spencer Tracy), dressed in top hat and tuxedo, is feeding popcorn to the pigeons. Seated next to him on the bench is Trina (Loretta Young), homeless, hungry and desperate. At first he takes her for a panhandler, but believing her story that she hasn't eaten in two days, treats her to a meal in an nearby expensive restaurant. As much as Bill appears to be a man of wealth, he's just as broke as Trina. Due to his self confidence, he talks his way out of paying the check to the manager (Harvey Clark). Later that night, Bill takes Trina to his place of residence, a "Park Avenue" section along the East River called Shanty Town, where the homeless victims of the Depression are gathered together in run down shacks, including Ira (Walter Connolly), a churchless preacher who quotes scriptures from the Bible; Flossie (Marjorie Rambeau), an argumentative drunk; and Bragg (Arthur Hohl), a man not to be trusted, all close friends of Bill's. Through the course of time, Trina, having moved in with Bill, keeps house for him while he acquires various lines of work to support himself, and when not working odd jobs, finds time playing baseball with the neighborhood kids. Helping Bragg with one of his assignments as process server, Bill succeeds in where others have failed - that of personally handling a subpoena to entertainer, Fay LaRue (Glenda Farrell) and facing up to several of her tough thug bodyguards. Because Bill is having an affair with Fay (who likes his nerve), Bragg tries to step in on Trina, now pregnant with Bill's baby. When Bill learns he's about to become a father, he's faced with a decision to either catch the next train out of town or join forces with Bragg on a job that could get them in trouble with the law.
This seldom revived love story is one from the time capsule, capturing, in a reality sense, the hardships and struggles of the Great Depression. Borzage offers some reflection of the times as the camera focuses on Bill and Trina walking down Broadway with movie marque titles of the day visible in background, namely George Raft and Sylvia Sidney starring PICK UP (Paramount, 1933). As for the script, it portrays Tracy as tough, irresponsible and confident in a physical sense. He charms women with his dynamic personality but in reality is unable to face up to any responsibility. When asked what he does for a living, he responds, "I LIVE!" When not working, he's out playing baseball with the neighborhood kids. Almost immediately, Bill makes Trina his own. The very night of their initial union, they end up skinny dipping in the East River, a scene that certainly raised a few eyebrows way back when. As much as Bill doesn't waste any time, neither does Trina. At first she's shy and lacks confidence, but loses all fears once she's in the company with Bill. Like Trina, Fay (Glenda Farrell) becomes attracted to Bill, admiring his big shot personality. Farrell's Fay sings one song titled, "Surprise." No doubt, she gets one from Bill. Other noteworthy support goes to Arthur Hohl as Tracy's underhanded friend; Connolly the middle-aged preaching night watchman. and Dickie Moore briefly seen as the crippled boy with leg in brace who gets an autographed baseball from Bill. Existing still photos of Helen MacKeller indicate her withdraw from production and substituted by character actress, Marjorie Rambeau, whose mannerisms and performance reminds any film buf of Gladys George.
Not televised in the New York City area since the 1960s, MAN's CASTLE seemed destined to never be seen again. Aside from revival movie houses in the 1970s, cable television helped bring films such as this back to life again. One of its earliest known broadcasts was on Wometo Home Theater in 1985, followed by other cable channels before turning up on Turner Classic Movies on August 31, 2008, during its "Summer Under the Stars" presentation and 24-hour salute to Spencer Tracy. For a 1933 film, circulating prints to MAN'S CASTLE are from latter 1930s reissues, substituting a 1940s Columbia logo over the pre-1936 style trademark of woman holding a lighted torch in dark background. Often labeled at 76 minutes, TCM print is a few minutes shorter.
While no castle is evident, a story of a man named Bill and a girl named Trina (along with impressive close-up shots of Loretta Young's youthful beauty), is all that's needed for a simple story about simple folks. (***)
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