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Vol. LXII, No. 8
 
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
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DVD Review

AT HOME WITH BILL AND TRINA: This still from Frank Borzage’s “Man’s Castle” shows the artfully deranged habitat shared by the lovers. The $5-down stove can be seen next to Spencer Tracy (as Bill), who has just attempted to rob a toy factory to help pay for the baby Trina’s expecting. The robbery attempt fell through when he became infatuated with the musical wind-up toy (“I’ll get it for the kid”) he’s just set loose to announce his presence to Loretta Young (as Trina), who is still in her “wedding” dress (the ceremony unsanctioned; marriages in Borzage movies are rarely condoned by church or state). The couple will soon be in a freight train together on their way to a new life in movie heaven, Bill cradled in Trina’s arms in one of the most memorable closing shots in American film.

An American Masterpiece You Can’t See on DVD — Yet

Stuart Mitchner

With Academy Awards night looming, I’m thinking there should be an Oscar for Best Overlooked Picture of the Past. You could call it the Garbo Award, for Greta Garbo, one of several legendary stars who never received an Oscar. The most deserving such film I know of is not only one of the best American movies ever made, it remains the most beautiful and accomplished motion picture to come out of the Depression era. Sadly, this will be a DVD Review in name only, since Frank Borzage’s Man’s Castle has never been released on video or DVD and is rarely seen on television. I taped my copy off Cinemax 15 years ago. Technicians and archivists working on a restoration have extra incentive to put it on DVD this year, in time for the film’s 75th anniversary. You may not know his name today, but at the time he made Man’s Castle, Frank Borzage had already won two Best Director Oscars — the first ever, for 7th Heaven, in 1928, and for Bad Girl, in 1931.

Made at the same studio in the same year, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night had extraordinary popular success, swept the 1934 Oscars, and has been available for home viewing ever since the advent of the VCR. Although Man’s Castle was released before the Hays Office began its strict enforcement of the Production Code’s list of inadmissable sins, it had been thoroughly savaged by the censors when it finally opened in New York in late December 1933. Thirty cuts had been inflicted, and even then it was banned in several states.

Capra’s romance of the road has a sassy, fast-moving, fast-talking panache; it’s an amusing slice of 1930s American life. Thanks to a combination of enlightened acting, directing, and cinematography, however, Man’s Castle is a richer and more lasting work of motion picture art. Visually, it’s the difference between prose and poetry — except that thanks to the lively dialogue provided by Jo Zwerling and delivered with roughneck bravado by Spencer Tracy, Man’s Castle sustains its own salty, slangy immediacy. If anything, Tracy’s resourceful, unrepentant outcast is tougher and more driven and driving than Gable’s cocky, full-steam-ahead newspaperman. He’s also more human and more vulnerable — perhaps too vulnerable for audiences of the time who preferred that the “weaker sex” ultimately remain subservient to the alpha male.

Intimate Magic

Romantic meetings on park benches have figured in American movies from the silent era to the present. The one that begins Man’s Castle is, like most of the others, set in Central Park. The outline seems unexceptional enough. Rich man in evening dress (Spencer Tracy as Bill) meets poor girl (Loretta Young as Trina) who hasn’t eaten for two days and is gazing hungrily at the popcorn the top-hatted man-about-town is feeding to a bunch of pigeons. The establishing shot is the standard view of Manhattan towers at the southern border of Central Park. Most directors would then cut right to the bench and the couple. Instead, you’re plunged into a soft-focus close-up dream of bustling, glowing, feathery luminosity, radiant wings flashing like banners of storybook splendor against the plush black night. These are not your ordinary garden-variety city pigeons. These are enchanted, whiter-than-white creatures fit for carrying love notes between Titania and Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As the camera tilts upward to take in the top-hatted lounger, his tuxedo jacket is open and a cigarette is jutting from his mouth with a suggestion of easy arrogance that somehow doesn’t go with the fancy duds; the magical light is still in play, glowing on his shirt cuffs, shirt front, cigarette, even the bag of popcorn, but this isn’t visionary pigeon feed he’s dispensing; this is the real thing, good old-fashioned American moviehouse popcorn and the hungry girl is devoutly wishing she had some. Giving her a dirty look, the playboy barks, “Wassamatter? C’mon spill it!” in a voice more suited to a Hell’s Kitchen lout than a Park Avenue bon vivant. She’s scared and tries to get away, but he grabs her and as soon as he discovers how long it’s been since she’s had a meal, he hauls her unceremoniously off to one of the fanciest restaurants on Broadway, where he treats her to dinner. Walking away from the free meal he conned from the restaurant manager with a lecture on how much good food they throw away every day (“People are starving!”), he reveals the true function of the top hat and tails, as the neon letters on his shirt front flash on and off, spelling out Gilbey House Coffee. He’s a walking advertisement.

The Poetry of the Ordinary

In a movie where Central Park pigeons can be made to resemble magical beings, it only follows that other seemingly ordinary objects will be touched with magic: for instance, a stove in a store window offered for $5 down and $2 a week; a wind-up toy drummer boy that plays “Yankee Doodle Dandy”; a riverside encampment of makeshift shacks and huts Bill takes Trina to that first night (“Bagville on the Hudson”), so artfully constructed and lit that the ramshackle vista achieves a complex, exotic splendor, like a glittering oasis in the Sahara. Then there’s the elaborately cluttered interior of the shack Bill and Trina share, with a sliding window over the bed so that Bill can pull it open and look up at the sky whenever he feels the urge to escape the relationship (something that comes over him every time he hears a train whistle). In order to raise money for that stove, which Trina longs for, he becomes another walking advertisement, this time a clown on stilts for the Gotham Eatery. Before that, he earns the $5 downpayment by serving a summons to a nightclub singer (played Mae-West-style by Glenda Farrell) in the middle of her act, where the band of luminous gold-hatted, white-suited musicians backing her resemble the sort of incandescent orchestra the Great Gatsby might have hired to dazzle Daisy Buchanan.

Loretta’s Eyes

More important than any of those objects, however, is the radiant observer whose gaze alone is enough to illuminate everything she loves or fears or wonders at or desires. From the first shadowy park-bench close-up haunted by her achingly expressive eyes, 20-year-old Loretta Young lights up the film, its emotional beacon. With some guidance from Borzage, who was unsurpassed as an actor’s director, and with the camera work of Joseph August, who shot Murnau’s Sunrise, her beauty is captured and expressed in close-up after close-up, portraits of passion, hope, adoration, and fulfillment, from the fearful, half-starved girl of the opening to the blooming, love-emboldened beauty who cradles Tracy in her arms on the hay-strewn floor of the box car at the end. Even the neon letters on Bill’s shirt front become beautiful when you see the flash of light reflected in her face, and it’s Trina’s gaze that helps transform the cheap stove she longs for into a thing of beauty. The first time you see it, it’s just a stove in a display window. Then the camera pulls back to show her staring at it in a rapture of longing endowed with the aura of her heart’s desire that has to be there for you to believe in the scene that unfolds when Bill finally buys it and brings it home. When she falls to her knees in front of it, it’s as if this thoughtful act from so boastfully thoughtless a man had just saved her soul.

Carnal Knowledge

Few scenes in films from any era have captured an intimate moment between a man and woman in love as well as the one that takes place when Trina is seen standing in front of the store window gazing on the stove of her dreams. Sidling up next to her licking an ice-cream cone, Bill teases her, pushes her around, calls her “whozis” (all he ever calls her, except for one tender moment when she’s “little whozis”), and you can see from the way she rolls with his jostling that he’s making love to her even as he seems to be belittling her; at the same time, it’s obvious that the fearful girl of the opening scene has entered into some brave new world of love. And when she stands on tiptoe to whisper something in his ear, and he smiles, you know these two are not just making love, they’re making it beautifully. No need for torrid shows of passion. He never ever tells her he loves her. He doesn’t have to.

Unfortunately, the censors knew what was going on. It was all too clear that this couple was having sex out of wedlock — with the inevitable result. (In fact, Young and Tracy were engaged in a real-life affair of scandalous proportions since Tracy was married and a Catholic.) Among the forbidden sins besides “cohabitaton” committed in Man’s Castle, as tabulated by Borzage’s biographer Hervé Dumont, are nude scenes (they swim naked in the Hudson the night they meet); an illegitimate child; attempted rape (of Trina by the villain of the piece, who is eventually shot dead by a drunken woman); allusions to prostitution, suicide, and abortion; alcoholism; unpunished breaking and entering; justified murder; indecent dialogue; swearing; and blasphemy.

With all the American films that are being found, saved, restored, rediscovered every day, it might make sense for the Academy to create a special category for embattled, battered, but unbowed masterworks such as Man’s Castle, which if Columbia can get it put together again in time, should be on DVD later this year.

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