June 19, 2024

Celebrating an Uncut Gem: Frank Borzage’s “Man’s Castle”

By Stuart Mitchner

Sixteen years ago I wrote about “An American Masterpiece You Can’t See on DVD — Yet.” Now, at last, we can forget the “Yet.” Frank Borzage’s Man’s Castle (1933) has been restored to its original length and released on a Blu-ray disc from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Although this is an entirely legitimate piece of good news, I can’t help recalling the moment in Mad Men when Pete Campbell goes to Mr. Cooper with proof that the firm’s genius Don Draper is an imposter, a fraud, a criminal, maybe worse, to which the boss croons, three times, “Who cares?”

In his “Front Row” appreciation of Man’s Castle, the New Yorker’s Richard Brody cares; it’s a film that he’s “cherished’” for decades. Referring to the “eight minutes of risqué plot points and dialogue” that were cut in deference to the Motion Picture Code, Brody confesses that his “love of the movie has been accompanied by tantalized curiosity about what was missing.” As he puts it, “the restoration emphasizes all the more strongly the depth and power of Borzage’s vision — and the wit and style with which he brings it to light.”

Borzage? Who Cares?

Martin Scorsese cared enough to write the foreword to Hervé Dumont’s biography, The Life and Times of a Hollywood Romantic (McFarland 2006), which I discussed here in July 2006 under the head, “Who Is Frank Borzage and Why Should You Care?” As Scorsese rightly observes, Borzage’s reputation has had the misfortune to be linked to Hollywood romance, thus Dumont’s title. The gritty, sassy, luminously down-to-earth film I picked to illustrate the magnitude of the dilemma was Man’s Castle, which is as important to 20th century American film as The Great Gatsby is to 20th century American literature. Now imagine not having easy access to Fitzgerald’s novel. Imagine not being able to find it in a bookstore or a library, and suppose that the few copies available had been violated by censors. In fact, Fitzgerald knew nothing of Gatsby’s extraordinary afterlife. When he died of a heart attack in December 1940, his greatest work was out of print, all but forgotten, and in the hallowed halls of the literary establishment, the idea that The Great Gatsby deserved reconsideration would most likely have been greeted with a dismissive gesture — as if to say “who cares?”

Borzage and Mystery

I used to think Borzage’s last name rhymed with corsage, at least until someone who knew better told me it was “Bor-zay-ghy,” which Brody says is “a sort of cinephile password” comparable to the correct pronunciation of Houston Street among New Yorkers. Oddly enough, a portion of the director’s fascination for me actually lived in his difficult name, which was the Open Sesame to a buried treasure of cinema, a vast filmography all the more exciting to explore because so few “cinephiles” seemed to know or care about it. And even more than the enigmatic shadings of his last name, the titles of his films pulled me in his direction: Valley of Silent Men, The Ghost Flower, The Age of Desire, Secrets, 7th Heaven, Street Angel, Lucky Star, No Greater Glory, History is Made at Night (“the most romantic title in the history of cinema,” says Andrew Sarris), right up to 1948 and Moonrise, made late in his 1912-1962 career, but, as Sarris writes in The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 (Dutton 1968), “this director’s personality never faltered, and when the glorious opportunity of Moonrise presented itself, Borzage was not stale or jaded.”

A Gem is a Gem

The glaring irony surrounding this newly restored Man’s Castle is that the eight lost minutes have no appreciable impact on the work’s cinematic integrity. Borzage’s creation was already fully aglow: cut or uncut, the gem was everything it had to be; but now that Columbia’s original has been brilliantly remastered, it’s even more, especially thanks to what Brody calls “the diligent detective work” of Sony executive Rita Belda.

One scene the censors didn’t touch, arguably the sexiest in the film, takes place after Spencer Tracy’s Bill and Loretta Young’s Trina have begun living together in a Manhattan riverside shantytown. Trina is seen standing in front of a store window gazing on the stove of her dreams ($5 down and $2 a week). Sidling up next to her, suggestively 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’s belittling her, and when she whispers something in his ear, and he grins, it’s clear that these two are having sex, as were the 20-year-old Young and the 33-year-old Tracy in “real life,” and since Tracy was a married Catholic, theirs was an affair of scandalous proportions.

In one of the restored passages that the censors snipped, Bill reads Trina the most erotic lines from the Song of Songs. Undaunted by the Code, Borzage effectively reworked the scene in Strange Cargo (1940) when Clark Gable’s escaped convict reads the same passage to Joan Crawford’s prostitute so cynically that she begins sobbing. Like Tracy and Young and every actor who ever lived and moved and thought and emoted under Borzage’s direction, Gable and Crawford are at their very best. The same can be said of Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper, the stars of A Farewell to Arms, which was made a year before Man’s Castle. For Hayes, Borzage is “the finest director I ever worked with … a genius and I’ve never applied that word to any director of stage or screen before.” For Gary Cooper, Borzage “taught me that the best acting is not acting at all, but a perfect naturalness, which comes easy when he stands behind the camera.”

The Gatsby Glow

The opening scene in which Bill and Trina share the same park bench transcends the “meet cute” cliché (Brody calls it “a meet-cute of misery”). After a nocturnal establishing shot of Manhattan towers at the southern border of Central Park, we see a top-hatted man-about-town feeding popcorn to pigeons under the hungry gaze of a girl who hasn’t eaten for days. Instead of cutting right to the bench and the couple, the camera plunges into a soft-focus dream of glowing, feathery, dove-white luminosity (even the popcorn is glowing), these are no ordinary pigeons, these are enchanted creatures worthy of carrying messages between Gatsby and Daisy in Fitzgerald’s cinematic prose poem.

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, the bag of popcorn. Except this isn’t visionary pigeon feed he’s dispensing; this is the real thing, good old American movie house ballgame popcorn and the hungry girl is devoutly wishing she had some.

The scene that most hauntingly reflects the Gatsby glow takes place when Bill earns the $5 down payment on Trina’s stove by serving a summons to a nightclub singer (played Mae West-style by Glenda Farrell) in the middle of her act, which is backed by a band of luminous gold-hatted, white-suited musicians resembling the dream orchestra that might have played at one of Gatsby’s parties.

If Gatsby’s Daisy sometimes seems to be Fitzgerald’s muse, Loretta Young’s Trina is Borzage’s 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, Young lights up the film, its emotional beacon. With some guidance from Borzage and cinematographer Joseph August, her beauty is 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 a boxcar in the film’s closing shot.

A Shakespearean Life

Born in Salt Lake City on April 23, 1894, the anniversary of the birth and death of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Borzage died at 68 on June 19, 1962, at the dawn of the so-called New Frontier. At 16, he was traveling around the western frontier with a small acting troupe that staged Hamlet using only five performers (Borzage played four different roles, including Polonius and the gravedigger). Still a teenager when he arrived in California, he was a leading man in films produced by Thomas Ince as early as 1912 in a two-reeler called In Secret Service.

Today I saw three 30-minute Westerns on YouTube directed by and starring a young Frank Borzage, not far removed from the kid who played four parts in a traveling production of Hamlet. In The Pitch o’ Chance (1915), the first film directed under his name, he played Rocky, “who bets on anything, everything, and nothing at all.” After watching the “Hollywood Romantic” romancing a gambler’s woman, it’s fun to see him boozing and eating and fighting in Nugget Jim’s Pardner (1916), where he makes himself at home with the title character and his daughter. In The Pilgrim (1916), Borzage plays the title character with an expressive warmth that overflows into his vision, giving the film the living, breathing excitement of a new medium being discovered and explored by a young actor fresh from learning his craft before audiences of cowboys and coal miners.

The First Game

The other day I watched Borzage’s 1925 silent feature The Lady on YouTube in between quick visits to the Gameday broadcast of the Cubs-Cardinals game. The Cards won and Norma Talmadge’s incredible performance survived a damaged print and numerous ads. It’s worth noting that on this date in 1846, the first officially recorded, organized baseball game was played at Elysian Fields in Hoboken.