A MAN’S CASTLE (Frank Borzage, 1933)

Frank Borzage won two Oscars for direction, for the mawkish silent melodrama Seventh Heaven (1928) and the New York City Depression drama Bad Girl (1931), which led to another New York Depression drama, A Man’s Castle. But this is the worst of the three.
     Trina, who is homeless, hasn’t eaten for two days when she beseeches a stranger in Central Park to help her to a meal. Bill obliges, taking her to a restaurant where he can no more pay the check than she can. They end up shacking up in the shantytown that Bill calls home.
     The film is better early on as it observes the couple’s relationship, but plot elements, and melodramatic ones, come to intrude. Bill is shot while attempting a theft at a factory where a neighbor of Bill’s, a minister, is the night watchman. Bill was attempting to arrange money for Trina and their baby—Trina is pregnant—before skidaddling out of town by train and abandoning her.
     While it cries out for a sociological treatment, Borzage instead opts for an unrealistic, occasionally poetical approach to the material. The lead performances do not help. Bill’s caring beneath virile bluster finds Spencer Tracy giving an unnuanced, rudimentary performance; by contrast, Charles Boyer would play a similar role beautifully in Fritz Lang’s Liliom (1934). Much worse than Tracy is Loretta Young as Trina, who is appealing though artificial—all luminous twentyish femininity; no flesh, bone or blood. Tracy and Young fell in love while making this movie, and some viewers swear they can see it happening. Young would dump Tracy for Clark Gable, but, despite what you may have heard regarding Katharine Hepburn, Young would remain the great love of Tracy’s life.
     This gossipy stuff is more interesting than the film.

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