Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"He's Just Like Oliver Twist. He's Always Asking For More!"

A Man's Castle(1933)
Director: Frank Borzage
Cast: Spencer Tracy, Loretta Young, Walter Connolly

Not a horror film, but a truly terrific pre-code gem with Spencer Tracy as the most macho character this side of a Russ Meyer film! This was made pretty early in Tracy's career and his hard-boiled characterization may be a tad off-putting for some viewers, but it really works in this gritty look at lovers during the great depression.

The film begins with Loretta Young, playing an out of work, down on her luck gal, who is looking for a handout. Along comes Spencer Tracy, decked out in a tuxedo, who offers that she dine with him. Turns out he's actually wearing a costume for a small advertising job and is actually a drifter. The two hit it off immediately and are soon shacking up, literally, in a shack in a shanty town, surrounded by many odd characters, including Walter Connolly as a retired preacher-turned night watchman and a wino played by Marjorie Rambeau. Tracy finds it difficult adjusting to a relationship, being a natural mover and his restles nature makes him irritable and edgy, constantly staring out the roof of his home, looking to the skies. Tracy has so many great quotes here and the one that he makes about "spending an eternity in the ground and rather looking up at the blue" is a classic. He is seduced by a lounge singer(Glenda Farrell) who wants to take care of him, but is torn because he discovers that Young is pregnant. Tracy wants to escape, but can't bring himself to totally run out on her. He feels the need to provide for her and with the aid of a real heel named Bragg(Arthur Hohl), Tracy and him attempt to rob a safe in a toy warehouse. The job dosen't pan out and Tracy is winged by Connolly. Going back to the shanty town, he is convinced by Rambeau that he can take Young with him and drift along with her, so he does. Hohl threatens to expose him for the supposed crime, but is shot to death by Rambeau, who supposedly takes her own life as well. Tracy and Young are last seen on a hay stack on a train, drifting off to nowhere.

A Man's Castle is a remarkable film, as most of this era were, and it's simply amazing how much will change in Hollywood in such a short period of time. Borzage specialized in making several lovely comedies and this one is no exception, though the depiction of an unmarried couple living together and having a baby out of wedlock, would never pass after 1934. That's a shame because this is a charming film that still has alot of meaning that so few that followed could hope to duplicate. It's romantic, but also comedic and hard-boiled at times, with a depiction of the depression that has to be one of the most definitive on film.
Tracy is typically good in the role of drifter, bringing a sarcastic and toigh nature that recalls many of the gangster parts at the time, and despite a number of put downs to Young throughout, he's still likeable and his moments of affection, particularly that winner of an ending, are genuine and sweet. Loretta Young can seem a little too mild at times, but creates a loving and warm character that it contrasts well with the rugged masculinity of Tracy's character. She rarely has looked lovelier, her closeups in soft focus, really being something to see. The rest of the small supporting cast are just fine, Connolly playing the same sort of fatherly figure he'd duplicate to perfection throughout the decade in such classics like It Happened One Night(1934) and Libeled Lady(1937). Surprisingly, Glenda Farrell has very little to do, despite her familiarity, especially in Warners Bros pictures. She's good in her role and even warbles a tune or two. Dickie Moore also has a small role as a kid who Tracy gives a phony autographed baseball to.

This is another highly underrated classic from the 1930s that is well deserving of rediscovery. It's fast-paced(only a few minutes over an hour) and has a certain grittiness and modern feeling to it that permeated the best of the pre-code era. It's a hoot to see Tracy in an early role, clearly relishing it and chewing the scenery for all it's worth and for romance lovers, this is a lovely escape for the filmgoer. The most romantic depiction of vagrancy on film.

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