Jon Kricfalusi would love these off-model Mickey Mices.
MAN’S CASTLE is a neatly double-edged title, since Spencer Tracy, the titular male, starts the film as apparently self-confident and indomitable, the kind of guy who creates a feudal estate out of any surroundings, but by the end of the picture his insecurity and immaturity have been firmly established, and we imagine something maybe more like a sandcastle for him to play with…
Jo Swerling, author of several Frank Capra depression-era fantasias, penned this beautiful and strange Borzage masterwork. The similarities and differences are plain enough: like any piece of Capra-corn, this movie raises the spectre of the depression but sugar-coats it with hope. Unlike in Capra, though, the protagonists this time don’t end up materially better off. It’s a tale of survival and romance, rather than one of triumph over the odds in the capitalist game.
Spencer Tracy as Bill is wearing a tuxedo and feeding popcorn to pigeons when he notices the beautiful Trina (Loretta Young, gorgeous) eyeing the bird-feed hungrily. He takes her for a meal, and then we discover that this fellow, who dresses like a debauched swell, hasn’t a cent to his name. The dinner jacket is part of his costume: the shirt front lights up as an ad for a store. We discover this as the pair escape the restaurant and walk to Bill’s digs, through back-projected streets populated by EERIE GIANTS.
Arriving at another piece of studio artifice, the city’s New Deal shanty town, Spencer becomes swiftly nude and jumps in the river for a wash. Loretta follows, in a bit of pre-code spice. The pair presumably become lovers at this point. This is pretty surprising (they’ve just met) but in keeping with Borzage’s sexual sophistication. He’s a spiritual filmmaker, and his branch of spirituality is explicitly Christian, but he finds room for sexuality in his world-view. He’s like Prince, in that respect. There, I said it: Frank Borzage is like Prince. Only without the purple blouse.
Even though this is the pre-code nudie bit, there isn’t a racy sense of Warner Bros smut: they look like souls drifting in space. A fat soul and a thin soul.
Spencer Tracy can be an issue: “It’s difficult for me to look at him,” says Fiona around this point, “because I find him physically repulsive. But he’s fascinating to watch.” It’s a good performance, with only occasional stomach-churning moments, but a GREAT role. Even Tracyphobes like ourselves are won over.
Let’s face it, he’s not the most handsome man. He looks like a potato would look if God got drunk and tried to make a potato out of lard. He also looks like Stretch Armstrong. Stretch was a toy my best friend Craig had when we were little, and he was made of special rubber so he could stretch his arms and legs and torso like Plastic Man or Mr. Fantastic or Mr. Fanplastic. Eventually he burst, emitting tetragenic latex sap, a noxious white fluid that stank the room out. I believe Spencer Tracy contains the same substance, slopping around inside him as he lopes through the city on his amazing stilts (he’s trying to compete with those eerie rear-projected giants).
The theme of a hovel transfigured into a castle, or a heaven, by love, is a classic Borzagean concept, expressed fully in SEVENTH HEAVEN and reprised in a straight rip-off in LITTLE MAN, WHAT NOW? Style is self-plagiarism, and Borzage sees no shame in repeating a successful trope. Bill and Trina set up in his shack, where a sliding hatch exposes him to the sky (“my hunk of blue”, he says, paraphrasing Wilde) whenever he needs a dose of freedom, but the sound of the freight trains constantly passing calls to him, and torments Trina . Initially afraid of everything, she flowers under his protection, and comes only to be anxious that he’ll leave her. Bill becomes MORE afraid, as he starts to sense how hard it’s going to be for him to get away. Trina’s pregnancy brings things to a head.
I think I agree with Arhur, who calls this a truly great film. It takes a non-judgemental and intimate look at an unconventional relationship between two extraordinary people. Trina comes from nowhere — we don’t learn anything about her past. She’s just poor. Bill has obviously been around a bit, and may have a history with Flossie, the shantytown drunk. His way of showing affection to Trina is to insult and threaten her. This verges on the harsh, alright, but the way Loretta Young reacts shows that she fully understands that this is just his way of masking affection: it means “I love you.” There’s a risk that, accepting all this verbal abuse, Trina could seem like a doormat, but Loretta just GLOWS — she’s receiving compliments and expressions of love with every insult. It’s not masochism, it’s just an ability to read Bill’s true meaning. The only thing that upsets her is when he talks about leaving.
Bill starts off as an admirable, self-reliant larger-than-life character who teaches Trina to live. But like most larger-than-life characters, he’s soon found to have intolerable as well as admirable traits. He operates according to a personal code, and he broadcasts the fact loud and clear, but he doesn’t really live up to his own standards. He’s unfaithful to Trina (with Glenda Farrell, the Personality Kid, so we kind of understand) and when he learns she’s expecting, he throws himself into a scheme to steal the payroll from a toy factory — the plan being to give Trina the money so she’ll be OK when he runs off and leaves her. Of course, Bill becomes more interested in the toys. He’s a big kid.
Now that she’s pregnant, Trina comes into her own and emerges as the stronger, more mature character. Another beautiful and strange Borz ending — his characters don’t tend to get rich, they continue struggling, but the optimism comes through in Borzage’s core belief that love will make struggling worthwhile.